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Prison Officer's Quarters (Ashford)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Kenneth Carlisle.]

10.14 pm

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) : I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a serious domestic problem facing one of my constituents which has been caused by the prison department, and to urge the Home Office to do something about it. For reasons that will become obvious, I do not propose to name my constituent tonight, although I have written to the Minister giving him her name and address.

In a nutshell, the problem I am inviting the Minister to solve is as follows. Contrary to the rules, the prison department allocated a second quarter to the husband of my constituent after he walked out on her and his two children. That amounted to helping a husband and father ignore his responsibilities. Now, two years later, the Home Office is seeking to rectify its error by putting my constituent and her children out on the street as there is no way that they can find alternative accommodation. That nasty little case of prison department incompetence and Home Office dither has caused great anguish to my constituent.

Let me set out the facts of the case. My constituent has been married to a prison officer for nearly 22 years. She has lived in prison department quarters for 21 of those years and she has lived at her present address for nearly 11 years. Her children were born in 1968 and 1970 and both still live with her. In autumn 1987 the prison department offered the house for sale at a discount under the fresh start scheme to my constituent and her husband because that house was surplus to requirements. In February 1988, the husband left home to live with another woman. Subsequently his plans fell through and he ended up in digs. In June 1988 the prison department allocated him another quarter. Thirteen months of silence followed. In June 1989, my constituent discovered that the Home Office was beginning to ask questions. In July 1989 my constituent asked the Home Office what was going on and in the same month she received her first contact from the prison department. On 11 August 1989 she received a notice to quit. That notice expired on 12 September 1989, since when there has been another silence, this time for five months.

Four issues arise out of that catalogue of facts. First, the prison department has broken its own rules by allocating a second quarter. Secondly, the prison department has actively helped a husband and father walk away from his responsibilities. Thirdly, the prison department and the Home Office have responded to my constituent's and my inquiries and correspondence with protracted delay and dither. Fourthly, contrary to natural justice, the Home Office is seeking to make my constituent and her two children put right its mistakes and those of her husband.

I do not need to say much about the first issue--breaking prison department rules--because the Government themselves are on record as admitting that the rules have been broken. A letter to me from the then Under-Secretary of State dated 22 August 1989 stated : "On the point you have raised about the allocation of a second prison quarter, I can confirm that this is contrary to Departmental policy. Since this allocation was made, very specific guidance has been issued to all governors and a similar situation should not occur in future."

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In plain English that means, "We were wrong. It will not happen again.". That is fine for the future, but it is not much comfort for my constituent.

The second issue concerns the role of the prison department and the Home Office in helping a husband and father walk away from his responsibilities. One letter from a Minister suggested that I was claiming that the Home Office had contributed to the breakdown of a marriage. Let me make it absolutely clear that I am making no such claims, but the prison department helped the husband to ignore his responsibilities. The husband left home for another woman. It did not work out. He could have gone back to his original home after making proper arrangements for his family. Instead, he persuaded the prison department to give him a second home. One accepts that he paid both rents, but his words make his motives absolutely clear. In a note to my constituent dated 21 July 1989, he says :

"I have checked again with the Prison Officers Association. After you receive your Notice to Quit you should not move. The Department then applies for a Possession Order and a time limit is set--even after this there is an appeal procedure. The whole process can take up to several months. They have never evicted anybody yet and Spelthorne Council have always eventually co-operated."

Again, in plain English, he is saying "I am OK ; let the Home Office do my dirty work, and let the council pick up the pieces." Being party to such a plan does the Home Office no credit whatever. The third issue that emerges from this sorry saga is a small but important one about bureaucratic dither and delay. Between February 1988 and July 1989--almost 18 months--my constituent heard nothing from the prison department. Last year it took the Home Office four months to answer one of my letters. As I said earlier, the notice to quit took effect five months ago, since when there has been another deafening silence. I invite you, Mr. Speaker, to imagine what it is like every time the letter-box rattles in my constituent's home. Every time that she hears something drop on the doormat she fears the worst. In my view, that is no way to treat a citizen of this country, and what has happened is no way to treat a Member of Parliament. The fourth issue is that my constituent has been made to pay for the errors of others. Courtesy of a mistake, the husband has a roof over his head and has no worries. Meanwhile, my constituent and her two children face the prospect of sleeping rough.

Spelthorne borough council has made it crystal clear to me that there is no question of its providing her with a home. Private rented accommodation simply does not exist in my constituency. My constituent has approached over 40 housing associations for help, but has been given a no every time. There is no question of her being able to afford buying on the open market.

The situation amounts to this : the husband need do nothing ; he walked out, but my constituent pays the price ; he remains cosy and warm, but she will get cold and wet. Where is the natural justice in that? The Home Office should be ashamed of being associated with that.

What is to be done about the problem? I can foresee four possible solutions. The first is to evict the husband and let him sort out his own problems, whereby the Home Office would be back to one quarter for one prison officer. Secondly, the Home Office could transfer my constituent's

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home to the local council ; the problem would go away because the council would have another house and she would have somewhere to live. Thirdly, the Home Office could make my constituent a secure tenant, and she would know where she stood in the future. Fourthly, the Home Office could sell the house to my constituent at a discount.

To date, the Home Office has shown little interest in trying to be helpful. Last August, all that it said was, "What a pity." Last December, it said, "We will do nothing for three months, and then out she goes." Finally, it told me, "We will sell to her at market price." That will not help. If my constituent could afford a house she would have bought one by now. That is not a record to be proud of.

We have reached a stage where the only honourable solution for the Home Office is to return to where we were in the autumn of 1987 and to agree to allow my constituent to buy her home at the discount that was then on offer. She has lived in a prison house for 21 years, and on that argument qualifies for the maximum discount. Her current home was declared by the Home Office to be surplus to requirements. I am aware that matters have moved on and that the Home Office is trying to say, in effect, "We did not really mean that, and the situation has changed." But it must still be surplus to requirements, for as recently as in the last two months the Home Office has again agreed to sell it.

At the same time, there is no danger, if the Home Office agrees to the sale, of setting a precedent. That is clear from a written answer that I received in December of last year from the Minister of State, who told me :

"I am aware of only two cases where a second quarter has been allocated to a prison officer before surrender of the original quarter with vacant possession."--[ Official Report, 21 December 1989 ; Vol. 164, c. 387 .]

So there were only two, and hence there is no question of opening the floodgates if this wrong were put right. As I explained, there is no danger of it happening again because the Government have made it clear that they have tightened up the regulations.

Here we have an episode which does nobody any credit. A husband and father has walked away from his responsibilities, a Government Department has broken its rules and helped him to do so and a wife and two children face sleeping rough because of what has happened. That offends against my sense of decency and is contrary to what I believe government, of whatever party, is all about.

Those who caused this problem have it in their power to put things right. I call on my right hon. Friend to do just that and thereby to put an end to three people's anguish, to agree to sell their house at a discount and to restore my faith in decency and natural justice. 10.27 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten) : I rise with some temerity to answer the debate because I am understudying for my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, who has ministerial responsibility for prisons, as my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) appreciates.

My hon. Friend represented the issue characteristically, in a robust and forthright way, and nobody could hope for a better representation than my hon. Friend provided for his constituents tonight.

I apologise to my hon. Friend unreservedly for any delays in answering his correspondence on the part of the

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Home Office. That should not happen. We try to make sure that it does not happen. Sometimes, alas, it happens, and when it does, Ministers are responsible. I apologise to my hon. Friend for the delays that occurred.

In responding as constructively as I can, it might be useful if I gave a brief history of developments in housing for prison officers and explained how the prison department finds itself in the position that we are considering tonight.

For many years, official quarters have been provided for prison officers, who were required, as part of their conditions of service, to occupy them. In other words, they had to live there. A housing allowance was paid if a quarter was not immediately vacant, but officers were required to move into official accommodation when it became available.

Permission to live out, as it was called--if an officer wished to buy his own property--was given infrequently and generally, in prison officer practice, only when an official quarter was not available. Such an arrangement meant in effect that the vast majority of prison officers, as they neared retirement, had no house of their own and little prospect of obtaining a mortgage. It was not a happy situation, and certainly not one that the present Government would wish to encourage.

An increasing number of prison officers began to seek permission to live out to enable them to become home owners and it became difficult to justify a policy that insisted that if a quarter was available, it must be occupied.

By 1979, about one third of all prison officers were living in their own houses. In August of that year, the Government introduced a change in policy enabling prison governors to allow applications to live out wherever possible. There was no good reason to oppose it. Where that resulted in quarters becoming surplus to long-term requirements, they were, in effect, sold on the open market, and I am sure that that has happened in my hon. Friend's constituency. Some quarters could not, and probably never can be, disposed of on security grounds. But some were sold to prison officers and others to authorities and private individuals at full market value. By 1983 that approach had led to something of a revolution. By then two thirds of prison officers lived out. The Prison Officers Association sought a scheme whereby the remaining official quarters could be sold at a discount. That approach was in line with Government policy, of course, and during 1983 and 1984 negotiations between the Treasury, the Home Office and the Prison Officers Association took place. The official side offered two package schemes comprising discount sales and the consolidation of housing allowances into basic pay. The POA balloted its members, who did not like the schemes, and they were rejected.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of discounts. In the light of the rejection of the proposed schemes, it was concluded that there was little prospect of any progress being made on discount sales, but requests for such a scheme continued, understandably when prison officers looked round at others in the public service who were enjoying the right to buy at a discount. In 1987 the wider-reaching fresh start proposals, which included the consolidation of allowances, including housing allowances, into basic pay gave us in the Home Office another opportunity, rightly, to offer those in quarters assistance to purchase their quarter, or another surplus quarter if they preferred it, and the discount sales scheme was introduced.

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Since the introduction of the fresh start scheme, as it is known, quarters are no longer provided as a condition of service. That has finished entirely. A prison officer no longer needs to go to the governor and say, "Permission to live out, sir." He has that automatically. Effectively an officer can choose to live wherever he or she wishes, but the distance the officer has to travel to work, any difficulty in getting to the establishment, or any domestic responsibility cannot be accepted as excuses for irregular attendance. The scheme is working well. We have agreed that those occupying quarters, who do not wish or are unable to purchase their homes at a discount, can remain in the quarter and pay a notional rent.

It became clear that with the end of quarters entitlement for prison officers and the introduction of a discount sales scheme, for which we have already received about 5,000 applications to purchase, the stock of quarters will reduce rapidly. There can, of course, be absolutely no suggestion of providing new quarters for staff, but we felt that there was a need to make the best use of the dwindling stock of housing, especially in London and the south-east where housing costs are high, as my hon. Friend knows. He said that there was no private rented accommodation available in his constitutency, which I understand. The available stock will be allocated to prison officers moving from a low-cost housing area to a high-cost area or where there are sound compassionate reasons.

How is a quarter allocated? How did my hon. Friend's constituent and his wife find themselves in a quarter? Allocation is made purely by virtue of employment as a prison officer ; that is the key phrase. The quarter remains the officer's sole responsibility until it is returned to the department with vacant possession. In other words, a quarter is allocated because someone is employed as a prison officer. There is no other ground. Responsibility for allocation lies with the governor of each establishment who will liaise, as necessary, with his regional office.

So the allocation of a quarter is made to an officer on a personal basis and should be his main residence where he and his family should reside. In the event that he vacates the quarter, the officer remains responsible for the quarter and for payment of rent until it is returned with vacant possession. The officer cannot transfer responsibility for the quarter to his wife or to anyone else. The wife has no continuing right of occupancy. That is made clear at the beginning of the occupation of the quarter. By vacating, the prison officer has also broken his own continuity of occupancy and ceases at that time to be eligible to purchase the quarter under the discount sales scheme. That is an important point to make to the House. The position of the wife and the children--if any--is that they have no right to remain in the quarter and will be subject to eviction proceedings. An officer will not normally be allocated a second quarter until he or she has surrendered the original quarter with vacant possession, but there is provision for second allocations to be made in exceptional circumstances.

That brings me to the specific case that my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne has so forcefully drawn to the attention of the House. With characteristic tact--and quite rightly--he has not named the individuals concerned and I shall follow his example. I am aware of the case at Ashford to which he refers, in which a prison officer separated from his wife, leaving her and the children of the marriage in occupation of a prison service quarter. I understand that, as my hon. Friend said, the officer made

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alternative temporary arrangements for accommodation until he was allocated a second quarter at the same establishment. That is somewhat unusual, to put it mildly, although it is not unique. As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary said in his letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne, it has happened only twice before.

The governor clearly felt that the officer's circumstances were such that there were particular compassionate reasons for making the second allocation. The officer involved is, of course, responsible for both quarters and for the payment of both rents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne is very concerned to support the family in this country, as I know from listening to him on other occasions in the House. He and I share a similar interest in family policy and in trying to develop ways of supporting rather than diminishing the family. There has been a flavour of a suggestion in the discussion and correspondence of this case with others involved--and I do not mean only in my hon. Friend's lucid speech--that the prison department made it a bit easier for the officer, not to leave his wife, but to evade his family responsibilities by providing him with alternative accommodation. I have considered that because it is an important suggestion. It does not seem, on examination, to bear such a close relation to the facts when one considers the chronology. It was several months after leaving his wife that the second quarter was allocated to the officer. My hon. Friend was generous enough to say that he was not suggesting that the prison department contributed to the break-up of the marriage, and he generously gives his assent to that now. However, my hon. Friend feels that the allocation of a second quarter, albeit several months after the officer had left his wife, allowed the gentleman concerned to evade his responsibilities. I have examined the matter, and my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, who has responsibility for prison issues, advises me that the wife can purchase the property at full market value and that the offer has been made. Failing that, she can be required to find alternative accommodation. I have also found that, in December 1989, my hon. and learned Friend agreed that no further

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action would be taken to evict the wife for three months, after which the case would be reviewed, and that it would not be right to prejudge the matter at this stage of a review.

I can give my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne an undertaking. I do not want the Home Office to take precipitate action to recover possession of quarters, especially after listening to my hon. Friend's forceful speech. If the wife is unable to purchase, I can pledge at least that I shall ensure that the Home Office considers sympathetically a request for extensions of time to enable her to make alternative arrangements. That gives some time before the dread envelopes drop on the doormat.

Mr. Wilshire rose--

Mr. Patten : I shall give way to my hon. Friend before I finish, if he wishes. I shall convey my hon. Friend's deep concern to my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office and put to him each of the three options that my hon. Friend outlined.

Mr. Wilshire : My constituent will be grateful for the consideration that has been shown but the facts will remain the same however much the time is extended. For the reasons that I gave, it will not be possible to make other arrangements when the time runs out. Whether the Home Office likes it or not, if it acts it will put my constituent and her two children out on the street with nowhere to live.

Mr. Patten : My hon. Friend's constituent has made heroic efforts to find a solution to her problem. She has approached some 40 housing associations. In my experience of such cases, an opportunity to deal with someone's housing difficulty sometimes emerges which was not there a few weeks before.

I have given a clear undertaking to my hon. Friend, and apologised to him for what he saw as poor handling of correspondence. His constituent's wife will be able to remain. We shall certainly consider sympathetically a request for an extension of time to determine whether alternative arrangements can be made. In the meantime, I shall put to my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State the three possible solutions that my hon. Friend put forward, and for which we are grateful.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Eleven o'clock.

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