Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  20. That was not something you anticipated when you made your proposals, was it?
  (Mr Narey) No, it was not. The idea of putting indictable only cases direct to the crown court was to reduce delay, and I believe it still will. It was not anticipated that the court would take this apparently cautious view in terms of making a decision of whether or not to remand in custody.

  21. I can see it might have been more successful in cutting waiting times rather dramatically at the magistrate court level and that would have a knock-on effect, because the magistrates' court could just kick them upstairs to the crown court. That has created a backlog—is that what has happened?
  (Mr Narey) The backlog is at the crown court specifically. Previously a lot of the waiting time for somebody to actually come to trial at the crown court took place when the defendant was actually at the magistrates' court—they would keep the case under review before it was committed to the crown court. Now they go direct to the crown court. The overall waiting time for these cases has not been allocated; but the burden on the crown court has meant they have not been able to keep up with cases. The Lord Chancellor is putting on additional courts in the new year to clear that backlog.

  22. You regard it as a temporary phenomenon?
  (Mr Narey) Yes, I do hope so.

  23. Sticking with the overall prison numbers for a moment. If 70,000-something is the maximum you can safely accommodate, and if the present rate of increase, which was about 6 per cent last year, were to continue you will reach the 70,000-something very swiftly, will you not
  (Mr Narey) Yes, we will.

  24. Remind us again how you are anticipating dealing with that?
  (Mr Narey) We have opened new prisons just this year at Dovegate and Rye Hill, which has given us extra capacity, and we are building additional house blocks and ready to use units at a number of prisons. The money I got in the last Spending Review was primarily for expanding the current capacity of prisons, and I got money for about 2,700 places. In the work I am doing for the Home Secretary now in preparing for the next Spending Review, I am advising the Home Secretary that we need to plan for further capacity if we are to keep apace with the population rise, and if we are not to further increase overcrowding, which is still very regrettable. The fact that in England and Wales there are about 13,000 men sharing a cell meant for one and, for the most part, sharing a toilet is regrettable; but at least we no longer have three people to a cell meant for one. At the moment we are just about coping with the increase. My anxiety is if there is any repeat with the male population of the extraordinary use of custody for women over the past year then we really would be in very serious trouble.

  25. You are going to bring into commission another 2,700 places in the near future?
  (Mr Narey) We have been bringing those into commission for the past two years. We have just filled Rye Hill Prison; we are just gradually filling Dovegate Prison in Staffordshire.

  26. What I am getting at is, does the 70,000 figure include these extra places that are coming on stream, or will they be in addition to?
  (Mr Narey) That figure is revised month on month as we bring extra capacity online. I am confident that towards the end of the Spending Review period I will have enough accommodation to cope; but I will need, I believe, to provide extra capacity and start planning for that next year—which is why we have already announced the buildings of new prisons at Ashford and Peterborough.

  27. What do you anticipate capacity will be by the end of the Spending Review period?
  (Mr Narey) The next Spending Review period, or the one we are just entering?

  28. You are saying now 70,000 and something is the maximum?
  (Mr Narey) Our capacity will be about 71,000; but I have to say we cannot use every one of those spaces—we need quite a significant amount of headroom already. As we reach operational capacity we are having to move prisoners further away from home than what I would like; sometimes we disrupt prisoners' education and training by moving them up country to where there are empty beds. We have particular difficulties in the south-east at the moment. The fact that I have a limit does not mean I can reach there and not damage what I think has been improving in prisons steadily in the last few years.

Bridget Prentice

  29. I want to take you back to women in prison. You said yourself there has been a 20 per cent increase in the past year. Both you and Mr Narey commented on the increase in custodial sentences for women. Why are women getting these? Are women now committing more crimes, or has it been the case that courts have been more lenient in the past but are now reflecting the nature of the crimes; or are they going in the other direction and being particularly severe with women? What problems does that give you within the Prison Service?
  (Beverley Hughes) There is some evidence that the kind of pattern of offending of women, insofar as explaining this increase, is one of the factors. There has been a rise in the number of women remanded—also in the sentenced population. In that sense it reflects what has happened generally across the prison population. In relation to women, women are committing more drug related offences. There is also evidence of a small but nonetheless demonstrable increase in the number of women committing robbery and violent offences. We estimate that about 52 per cent of the total increase is accounted for by drug related offences, and another 26 per cent for violence and robbery—and particularly younger women as well. There is some interesting evidence from the testing of suspected offenders when they come into police stations, urine testing, going on now in terms of testing for drugs, which shows much higher traces of opiates amongst women apprehended for offences than men. 45 per cent of women compared to about 26 per cent of male arrestees. It is a very substantial difference. That is accounting for quite a lot of this increase in terms of women coming into prison at the moment. In terms of the impact though, I think you will be aware that the impact, way down the line of a woman coming into prison, is very significant in the sense that women are predominantly primary carers very often. They will leave a family in the community when they are imprisoned. The long-term impact therefore in terms of social exclusion, in terms of fragmentation of the family, is generally regarded to be much more significant possibly than when a man comes into prison; he may well leave a woman in charge of the family, whereas with a woman the family is often left. The longer term consequences for a whole range of social, economic and relationship-type issues are very significant. We are very concerned about this.

  30. What do you intend to do about it? What suggestions do you have, for example, can you make tagging available? Are there many women who are tagged?
  (Beverley Hughes) I have asked the Director General to look particularly at that. I think it is quite difficult in terms of what I have just said about the kind of reasons these women are coming into prison now changing the profile of offences; because a number of women, particularly if they have been caught smuggling drugs or dealing in drugs, are getting quite heavy sentences. I have been talking to women myself in prison who have been sentenced to ten years or more and of course they are not eligible for Home Detention if they have been sentenced to four years or more. The potential may be limited but I do want the Prison Service to look at that most particularly. More generally, the focus on alternatives to custody is something we are pursuing. I did announce a strategy bringing together voluntary organisations in the departments across government to try, in a sense, to come very far forward and reduce women's offending by emphasising efforts we could make into the community in relation to drug treatment in the community, in relation to health education and training in the community targeted particularly at women, actually trying to prevent offending in the first place.

  31. That is very important, because a higher proportion of women prisoners are de-skilled or have very few skills compared with a fairly high proportion of the male population?
  (Beverley Hughes) Yes, that is right.

  32. What are you doing then to try and sort that particular problem out? We may well come back to education later.
  (Beverley Hughes) You are right. I think from memory, I estimate that about two in every three women when they come into prison come in without any qualifications at all, and that is a higher proportion than for men who are also similarly unqualified. It is a real issue. As I have indicated, many also will be coming into prison with problems with drugs, with mental health problems and that is another significant issue for women prisoners. All of the things we are trying to do in prison are particularly, especially and crucially relevant for women prisoners because of the multiplicity of often quite deep-seated problems that they present. The focus on education, the focus on drug strategy and trying to get people off drugs while they are in prison, on education, training and on offending behaviour programmes on anger management and relationship problems, are all very, very particularly important for women.

  33. Do you see the needs of women prisoners and male prisoners to be, in those terms, interchangeable?
  (Beverley Hughes) I do not think they are interchangeable at all. I think there are some commonalities amongst prisoners, whether they are male or female. I think the different weighting of factors can often be different. What we have to do in prison and also in the probation service, more than I think we have done at the moment, is to make sure that the opportunities we are offering are sensitive and are delivered in a way which recognises where there are differences between men and women, but those differences are reflected in what we are doing. For example, because of the sheer volume of male offenders, when we have been developing offending behaviour programmes, What Works Programmes, there has been an assumption in our mindsets that these will be male. We have not yet quite begun (I think we are beginning now) to ask the question: are those programmes relevant for women as they are for men, or do we need actually to finesse them for women? I think the approach is relevant, but the way in which we deliver them and maybe some of the content needs to be considered as to whether it is gender-sensitive enough.

  34. Finally, you have mentioned a rather startling figure about women and their use of drugs as well as committing drug-related offences. Your Service has been criticised by the Howard League for the way it deals with women prisoners who either attempt suicide or other forms of self-harm, in that the tendency is to isolate them, where in fact possibly having them with other people would be a more positive strategy. Do you accept that as a criticism? Would you like to tell us what your strategies other than that might be?
  (Mr Narey) I would like to say, first of all, there is nothing more important to me—and I made this very plain to the Service—than reducing deaths in custody. Despite the huge burden we inherited in terms of mental illness and the fact that, for example, (a statistic I find quite incredible) 44 per cent of women coming into prison confess to previously having tried to take their own lives, despite that burden the number of deaths in custody will have fallen probably by a third over the last two years. I think for both men and women we take a radically more sympathetic approach than we used to. It used to be the case that we would deal with potential suicides, as did most other prison services, particularly in North America, by isolation and by taking away any means of suicide at all. In the USA, for example, it is traditional that prisoners spend a very long time in strict conditions where they cannot harm themselves, but where the underlying causes behind the crisis may be getting worse. We do not do that. We never, ever use isolation or strict conditions for male or female prisoners at the risk of suicide. We think it is the right thing to put prisoners together, either with another prisoner who is a friend, or sometimes with a listener—a prisoner trained by the Samaritans in counselling skills so they can help someone though a particular crisis. In most prisons now we have what we call "listener suites" where a listener can stay overnight if necessary while somebody gets through the crisis. To some extent this approach has brought different criticisms, because what we do not do routinely is take away the means of suicide; we do not take away people's clothing, people's shoe laces; people's bedding; and sometimes, regrettably, they use those things to hurt themselves or kill themselves. It is a matter of the longer term effect of what you do to someone, if you treat them, for however temporary a period, in a very, very austere manner. It is significant that in the USA they have much lower rates of suicide in prison but alarmingly high rates of suicide immediately after release.

  35. Are you saying that in the States, where they do isolate, they have lower rates of suicide but that those people, once they leave, are more likely to commit suicide?
  (Mr Narey) Correct.

  36. How do you get a balance between the system we have where presumably there is a slightly higher rate of suicide within the Service and you doing what people like the Howard League say is right, keeping the suicidal person with other people and giving them support?
  (Mr Narey) We try to take a longer term view of the effect on the individual of the things we do. I understand that some staff, particularly a significant minority of my medical officers, have found this very difficult. They have found it hard to come away from the belief that what we should do at all costs is make sure when they go home of a evening the prisoner is in such circumstances that he or she cannot harm themselves. I am entirely convinced that the longer term effects of that were negative. One of the reasons why the number or rate of deaths were increasing up to 1999 was that you might get a prisoner through a crisis over three or four days, they would then go back into normal location and take the opportunity to take their own lives then. It is true, it is a bit of a conundrum—whether the much more austere approach taken in USA jails (whether it is causal is a matter for argument) does lead to much lower rates of suicide in prison; but in my view, I visit some of these jails, I do not think they deal with people who are mentally ill in a way I think is something which we can do if we are intent on treating prisoners in a decent and moral way.

  37. Do we do any follow-up of prisoners when they leave prison?
  (Mr Narey) Very limited. I think we have got a research project at the moment. It is following prisoners on release to look at their mental health. The main problem for us is the difficulties of the population we inherited—with very, very high levels of mental illness, directly linked to the risk of suicide. Since the introduction of care in the community the proportion of the population, male and female, who suffer from medium or severe psychosis has risen seven-fold.


  38. Coming back to the numbers of women, I recollect the last time I visited Holloway a large part of the population seemed to be foreigners serving sentences for importing drugs. Is the increase accounted for in any way by the number of foreigners?
  (Beverley Hughes) Yes. It is disproportionate—even higher than the 20 per cent. The number of women foreign nationals has increased by 37 per cent over the year up to October this year, compared to a rise of 14 per cent of UK nationals over that period.

  39. They tend to be what are known as "drug mules", is that right?
  (Beverley Hughes) Yes, predominantly.

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