Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence




  20. Is Northallerton overcrowded?
  (Mr Narey) Yes, it is.

  21. Are they locked up for that length of time because it is overcrowded?
  (Mr Narey) The overcrowding will contribute in part to that but no, that will not be the whole explanation for why they are locked up. I can certainly find the figures for you, but I do not have them to hand.

  22. One further line of questioning on whether we are holding the right kind of people in prison. Wandsworth is overcrowded and we hold asylum seekers at Wandsworth. That is right, is it not?
  (Mr Narey) That is right.

  23. We know from recent research that currently over 40 per cent of women in custody either sought or were given treatment for mental health problems the year before they went into custody and 20 per cent of male prisoners. Are those people who should be held in prison rather than in secure hospitals?
  (Mr Narey) Clearly we have a difficulty in that we have to accept everybody who is sent to us by the court, we do not go out to get people.

  24. What view do you have?
  (Mr Narey) Yes, I do think there are people in prison for whom it is not the best place and in particular I worry about the mentally ill, the proportion of whom in the prison population has risen sevenfold since the late 1980s at the time of the introduction of Care in the Community. For some individuals Care in the Community has become, I regret to say, Care in Custody, which is why I am so very pleased to see the NHS now taking a very real interest in prison health care and investing in us to provide up to 300 mental health nurses from the NHS to work on prison wings caring for the mentally ill.

  25. You say "for some". Ninety per cent, as I understand it, of young offenders in custody either have mental health problems, substance abuse problems or a combination of the two. Are they appropriately held in young offenders' institutions?
  (Mr Narey) My guess would be that most of them would be. I am trying to draw a distinction between drug abuse or alcohol abuse or other factors which may contribute to mental illness and people who have genuine moderate or severe mental illness and the sevenfold figure I quoted relates to those people. I would hazard a guess that a majority of young people coming into custody convicted of crime will have some problems related to drug or alcohol abuse.

Mr Linton

  26. You said you thought there were people in prison for whom prison is not the best place. Sir David Ramsbotham also expressed that view very strongly when he came to this Committee. He quantified it. I know it is very difficult to quantify this but I wondered whether I could ask you to comment at least on his estimate. He said that he thought that in round terms something like 20 or 30 per cent of male prisoners and well over half of female prisoners should not be in prison. Obviously in his view the rest clearly should be. He was putting the figure at somewhere around 20,000 out of the prison population would be better off somewhere else. What would your reaction to that figure be?
  (Mr Narey) I do not have a particular figure in mind. I would think it would be very much smaller than that. Previous to coming back to the Prison Service three years ago I spent seven years in the Home Office working very closely with the courts. I have virtually never seen an example of a magistrate or a judge recklessly sentencing someone to custody. In my experience most sentencers are desperate to find every possible alternative before they use custody. Certainly on your own visits to prisons if you wanted, for example, to look at the antecedents of a sample of prisoners, I suspect you will find in the overwhelming majority of cases young people have been given community alternatives and have failed them and courts eventually and unwillingly use custody. I would think the proportion who do not need custody, for whom there is an alternative, a viable sentence, is very much smaller than 20,000.


  27. That would be very helpful when we go to the establishments.
  (Mr Narey) I shall arrange for you to see a random sample just to dip into.

Mr Winnick

  28. On this particular point of people in prison, the number is expected to rise within six years to 74,000 prisoners. If that comes about, what are the chances of any substantial prison reform which you have been referring to?
  (Mr Narey) It will depend on the extent to which I am able to keep pace with that population growth. We have been given the money over the next three years to build two new prisons and provide a further 2,500 or so new places in terms of building wings in current establishments. Looking about four years ahead, which is as far as our spending plans go, we can keep pace with overcrowding. Clearly if it were to outstrip us there would come a point at which Mr Wheatley and I would find it dangerous to overcrowd any further. There would be a point at which we would find it unacceptable in terms of decency and order and control and security in overcrowded prisons. I am glad to say at the moment we are a long way away from that.

  29. Is it not the case that half the new prisons built in the last ten years are already overcrowded?
  (Mr Narey) Certainly the local prisons built in the last ten years will all have some measure of overcrowding, every one of them, yes.

  30. Would it be right to work on the assumption that the problem we are dealing with, as the prison population rises and continues to rise, could be resolved by new prisons being built when so many of those already built in the last ten years are overcrowded?
  (Mr Narey) The fact that some prisons are overcrowded does not mean that prisoners cannot be treated decently and that we cannot make prison reasonably constructive. That would be impossible if the level of overcrowding got to such a point that the proportion of prisoners who could get access to education and treatment programmes, drug treatment, offending behaviour programmes was so small and where the very decency of the place, being able to keep it clean, being able to offer people decent food, run a pleasant visitor environment, was threatened. That would certainly make the sort of Prison Service which I am keen on having very difficult. I do not think we are in that position now. Overcrowding about 15 months ago, as measured by the proportion of prisoners sharing two to a cell was about 20 per cent. It is now about 17 per cent.
  (Mr Wheatley) It is under 17 per cent.
  (Mr Narey) We have had some respite as we have brought new accommodation on stream, we have just commissioned and opened a new prison four weeks ago and at the moment we are enjoying some relief from the greatest pressures of overcrowding.

  31. In answer to Mr Linton, you took the view that the people in prison must be there; they have in many cases been given alternatives which they have abused and therefore they are in prison. May I put it to you that a number of organisations connected with prison reform strongly take the line that there are people in prison who simply should not be there? Undoubtedly they have offended, they are guilty, but there are alternative ways, non-custodial sentences, recognising, as I hope those organisations do, that where there is any danger to the community, those people should be in prison. Can the courts find ways and means—it is not up to you, I accept that—of trying to ensure that the prison population does not continue to rise?
  (Mr Narey) This comes down to the courts' confidence in alternative sentences. It is not for me to say who should come to prison, we just have to try to do our best job to look after them. I was making the observation that sentencers are treated unfairly and are caricatured as people who with reckless abandon send people into custody. That is not my experience. There may be an issue for sentencers around the credibility of some community sentences. Recent improvements to the enforcement of community sentences may have a substantial impact on securing the courts' confidence. It is certainly the case that offenders still sometimes see an absolute divide between being sent down into custody and getting off, which includes sometimes getting a community sentence which should actually be quite rigorous for them.

Mr Stinchcombe

  32. Ten months ago in April last year you said that we were approaching the limit in terms of overcrowding and what you thought was acceptable in terms of control and order in prisons and that we had exceeded it, gone past it in terms of what you wanted for prisoners in respect of hygiene and the way in which they were treated within prisons. How close are we then to those limits now ten months on?
  (Mr Narey) I cannot remember the exact figures. I think at the time the population was about 66,500; that is about the point at which it peaked. The population towards the end of last year dropped at one point to 62,000; it has now just reached 64,000 again. We have brought some new accommodation on during this period including one new prison. At the moment we are some distance from that, indeed we have been able to reduce the capacity of places like Birmingham and Leeds significantly to give the governors a better chance of running places which are more humane. On all reasonable projections we are thankfully some years away from the point at which I would believe we could not run a decent Prison Service because of the population.

  33. But we are only six years away from an estimated population of 80,000.
  (Mr Narey) Projections are traditionally unreliable. The most recent projection made by Home Office statisticians in October is already 700 behind what the current population is. Throughout the whole of last year, by contrast, our population fell heavily behind the projections. What I am confident about in a rather shorter timescale is that through the next three years, unless something quite extraordinary happens, with the use of custody by the courts we shall be able to keep ahead of the population growth and keep overcrowding not at levels which I should like, but at levels at which I still think there is no excuse for us not to run decent places.

Mr Malins

  34. A quick point on sentencing. May I confirm from my own experience—I am the one person in this room who in my judicial capacity has to sentence no fewer than 80 or 90 people per month—that judges and recorders and stipendiaries try very hard not to send people to prison and it is always used as a punishment of absolutely last resort? This myth that the courts are only too gung-ho to put people away for trivial offences is but a myth. Is that your general thought?
  (Mr Narey) It is indeed.

Mr Howarth

  35. There are many people in this country who are the victims of crime and who feel that prisons should be a punishment. In your corporate plan and your Prison Service vision, there is no reference to the word punishment. Before I come on to the question of purposeful activity, may I ask you to define how you see the role of prisons in being humane places and certainly being hygienic places. How far do you think they also need to be a place where people are put for punishment for the crimes they have committed against society?
  (Mr Narey) It is somewhat of a cliche but I believe very strongly indeed that people should not be sent to prison for punishment, that the deprivation of liberty is the punishment. In my experience that is always a pretty horrendous experience. I would be distraught if it were to happen to one of my children or indeed happen to me. The reality of being locked away, sharing a cell with a stranger, having your liberty taken away, having very limited access to anything we consider to be freedom, seeing your loved ones fleetingly every week or sometimes every fortnight is a pretty horrible experience in itself. It is not any purpose of the Prison Service to exert punishment on people in our care. Our job is to treat them decently and hopefully do things so that some of them, as many as possible, are likely to come out less dangerous than when they came to us and in particular, because we know that there is such a grave problem with employability at the moment, more employable than when they came to us.

  36. There is a balance to be struck between providing all the things you are talking about and providing a regime which appears to be rather more generous in terms of its physical provisions, like for example the provision of television in prisoners' own cells, than many other people who are not leading a life of crime are able to attain in their own private lives.
  (Mr Narey) I am not sure how many people in the community do not have access to television. I think televisions have been a very important help to the Prison Service. They contribute significantly to order and control; with young people they are a very significant encouragement to good behaviour. The threat of losing TV for a night for a young person with very short timescales is sometimes much more immediate to them than the prospect of a longer term punishment. My belief is that TV will be a very important element in my determination to reduce the number of suicides. They are a way of combatting loneliness and isolation. Not least because they are self-financed, prisoners pay for TVs, there is no expenditure on the public purse, so I am very much in favour of their wider provision.

  37. May I turn specifically to the question of purposeful activity? In your speech you said "Education or other purposeful activity is now offered to all prisoners". You also said that you are doing nothing to prepare prisoners for release. There is clearly a contradiction in what you have said there. Given that the amount of purposeful activity which is taking place is substantially less than it was four years ago, what are you actually doing to fulfil the ambition which you have which is to provide that purposeful activity?
  (Mr Narey) May I just clarify your question? I think the piece from my speech which you quoted was a reference specifically to Wormwood Scrubs where I said every prisoner is now offered education or purposeful activity. We offer purposeful activity right across the estate but not to every prisoner and not for as long as we wish.

  38. You are absolutely right, when you mentioned education that was Wormwood Scrubs. There is still a contradiction, I think you will agree.
  (Mr Narey) I acknowledge that purposeful activity has been rising over the past couple of years. I hope that for the first time in three years we will meet a target of 24 hours. We are very close to it. I could promise you that if I had only been interested in the target I could have reached it with some ease in the last couple of years, because I could just have put many, many prisoners into workshop activity, where typically with a couple of staff we can get 30 or 40 prisoners. We can get a lot of contract work, low grade work, packing plastic bags for charities and so forth and purposeful activity would soar. Instead, quite intentionally, we have spent the investment on regimes, on offending behaviour classes, generally classes of about ten; literacy and numeracy classes, generally classes of no more than eight; sometimes drug treatment courses, sometimes very intensive but involving few prisoners. We have tried very hard to go for quality provision rather than just pursue the 24-hour target. Nevertheless we are close to meeting that 24-hour target for the first time for some years.

  39. It seems to me that the 24-hour target is a pathetically low ambition to have, if I may say so. It is not a criticism of you, it is a criticism of the Service. As you know, I spent three days in Dartmoor as a prison officer, together with my esteemed colleague Mr Stephen Pound, the Labour Member of Parliament for Ealing North. It was an absolute eye-opener. It was a fascinating experience. It changed my mind to the extent that if we are spending £25,000 a year in keeping people incarcerated, we have to do much more than aim for 26 hours a week. They should be made to work purposefully from the moment they get up to the moment they go to bed. In Holland at Utrecht we saw a regime like that and they are knackered by 4.30 and are not going to cause anybody any problems. Why can we not move to a system like that where there is real purposeful activity, not just making socks and that sort of thing but a properly structured programme. Can I put it to you that maybe one needs to differentiate between those who are in the long-stay car park and those who are in the short-stay car park and perhaps we should re-arrange our prisons so that there are short stay and there are long stay. Could I put to you that that is really what we should be doing, what Ann Widdecombe said yesterday about making these people pay for their crimes by working, doing something productive, so they have something to go to when they leave?
  (Mr Narey) First of all, yes, we can do better and I hope we will do better. If we meet the target for purposeful activity this year, I would want to raise the target, although I do think that the purposeful activity measure is rather crude in that it does lump together very high quality interventions with some low quality activities. In terms of work, all I would say is that it is not quite as simple as it sounds. If I may give an example, very recently at a prison in the North West we did secure a very, very significant contract with two supermarkets to provide them with vegetables which we would have processed. Lots of work for prisoners, we would have made significant revenue from it, there was not doubt at all on the part of the purchasers that we would have done a very good job. We had to withdraw from that at the last minute when it was made clear to us by the constituency MP, that people in the area would have lost their jobs. There is an issue around us competing. We make a lot of furniture; we make some very good quality furniture. Our main competitors are firms like Remploy who employ the disabled. Neither I nor any Home Secretary would be thanked for putting the disabled out of work. The market in which we can try to get work is largely limited. We have just been very successful in getting a great deal of data processing work. We are transcribing electronically the 1901 census. If we do that successfully, we will get significantly more work. What is significant in that is that our competitors are in Indonesia.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 21 March 2001