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House of Lords

Thursday, 1st December 1994.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by

the Lord Bishop of Newcastle.

Opinion Polls: General Elections

Lord Orr-Ewing asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will consider prohibiting the publication of national opinion polls in the week before a general election.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, we have no plans to do so.

Lord Orr-Ewing: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that at the previous election it was widely reported that every single one of the national opinion polls was wrong? They gave 3 or 7 per cent. leads to the Labour Party. In the event, the Conservative Party gained over a 7 per cent. lead. We were told at the time that an in-depth investigation would be held within two years to discover why these errors arose. I have not seen the result of that. Can we be told the result of that and whether therefore the opinion polls are likely to be more accurate next time?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I can confirm that the opinion polls in the period leading up to the previous election were not accurate. Research was commissioned by the Market Research Society and there were a number of findings. It was discovered that the way in which the data was collected was not very sound. It was also discovered that not everyone in the High Street who was asked his opinion gave his true opinion. It has to be said that one would think, reading the opinion polls at the moment, that the Tories were going to lose the next election.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, will the noble Baroness consider suggesting to her colleagues that an unofficial approach is made to the pollsters to cease publishing results over the next six weeks in order that we can have a Christmas free of any threats of Cabinet suicide?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, what they publish must be a matter for the pollsters themselves.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, as well as getting rid of opinion polls, will the noble Minister also arrange to get rid of Peter Snow and his rather stupid swingometer which told us that if the result was repeated across the country the Labour Party would have 648 seats, the Conservatives one and the Monster Raving Loony Party two? While we are at it, can we get rid also of Peter Kellner and Ivor Crewe who are constantly telling us why people voted differently from the way they thought they should vote? Once we have got rid of all that, with the great help of the Prime

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Minister and the Chief Whip in the other place we can then let the people of this country get on with getting rid of the Government.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I shall set aside the fantasizing of the noble Lord on these matters and simply say this remains a matter for the pollsters. If they continue to be unreliable, clearly they will be out of business. It is in their own interests that they at least adopt techniques that are more representative of the research that they are trying to produce. Further, bans have been tried before and we know there is an enormous amount of circumvention. For example, other kinds of predictions will take the place of opinion polls. Canvassing returns could become the predictor of elections. Most other countries sell newspapers from other nations. In France there is a ban which has operated for many years now; but other countries speculate in their absence.

The Earl of Kimberley: My Lords, has my noble friend ever heard of anyone in this House being polled, whether that be herself, myself, or any other Member of your Lordships' House?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I have just been reminded that we do not get a vote. We, together with lunatics and others, do not get a vote. I am rather depressed because I have never been polled and I should like to be from time to time.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chairman of the Market Research Society. Will the Minister be good enough to inform the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, that the Market Research Society has indeed published its detailed conclusions on the problems of polling in the previous election? I am sure he will be able to obtain a copy from the Library, or even buy a copy if he so wishes. My next question follows from what the Minister has just said about the alternative which, I am sure she will agree, is uninformed speculation which would be even worse than the inaccuracies which have been shown in certain polls.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. It is very much in the interests of the Market Research Society that the scientific basis of the polls and the information collected is sound. Therefore, I commend the report for reading. Also, much of the speculative information which would take the place of the opinion polls if they were banned would be a great deal more distorting than the poll information. Therefore, we have an interest in making sure that the information is sound.

There is another point which is worth making. On certain issues it is important that from time to time those of us who are politicians, in either House of Parliament, are given some idea of how the policies of any sitting government are perceived by the general public.

Lord Orr-Ewing: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I am a rare bird? I have only once been canvassed, in a local election, outside my constituency office. A lady came up to me and asked which way I would vote the following week. I said, "Tory". She

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asked why. I said, "I am the local Member of Parliament". So she picked up her clipboard, said "You're not typical", and walked off.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I cannot follow that!

Prisons: Assaults on Staff

3.14 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are concerned that in 1993 there were 2,540 assaults on prison staff in prisons and remand centres in England and Wales; and, if so, what steps are being taken to improve matters.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, there will be a change of tone. Assaults on prison staff are a matter of great concern. A reduction in the level of violence in prisons is a strategic priority for the prison service. We have taken a number of steps to improve matters, including tackling violent behaviour through work with prisoners, improved procedures for the control and supervision of prisoners' movements, improving staff skills and training in dealing with difficult and disturbed prisoners, analysing and learning from incidents of assault, and operating systems which reward good behaviour and penalise bad behaviour.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale: My Lords, I am much obliged for that Answer. I appreciate that a number of the offences are comparatively trivial, but it seemed to me that the total figure was rather alarming and apparently there is a rising trend. I am much encouraged by the Answer we have just been given. Can the Minister say whether there have been any special problems in the prisons which have suffered most from overcrowding? Can she also say whether there is enough information to form any opinion on whether there is any marked difference in behaviour by prisoners in the prisons run by outside firms?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I cannot answer the last point because those prisons are very new. No doubt we shall continue to monitor the position and come back with the information.

It is interesting that the figures are worse for those prisons which are not overcrowded. There is some evidence to support that. It is an interesting phenomenon that the greatest problem is not in the crowded prisons but in the newer, more capacious prisons.

Happily, I am also able to say that the figures do not reflect a rising trend. There are signs that the trend is now on the decrease. There is still a rise year on year, but the increase this year over last year is lower than the increase last year over the previous year. We hope that that will continue.

Baroness Seear: My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell the House whether any study has been undertaken

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to relate such attacks to drug abuse inside prisons and to the extent to which drugs are finding their way in to prisons? If not, could not such a study be undertaken?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, it is true that many assaults have a connection with drugs. A number of programmes have now been introduced to address that particular issue--for example, offending behaviour programmes--some of which are very successful. There is also a violent offenders' programme, since attacks can be both violent and related to drugs. It is an issue which is being taken very seriously.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, it was interesting, and indeed startling, to learn from the Minister that violence towards staff is greater in prisons which are not overcrowded. Will she be undertaking research to seek an explanation for that apparently paradoxical finding? Is it not also the case that, regardless of overcrowding, any increase in the absolute level must reflect the regrettable rise in the prison population in recent years?

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