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Lord Jenkins of Hillhead: My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will forgive me for a moment. Why was it possible a few decades ago to run the Home Office, on the whole so much more efficiently, with fewer junior Ministers?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am dealing with what the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, said. He implied that because there are five of us the Home Secretary plus four at the Home Officesomehow or other we did not have enough work to keep us employed.
Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, I am very sorry indeed if I have misled the House in any way. That is certainly not what I said. I said very plainly that there has been a very substantial growth in the number of Ministers despite there being fewer responsibilities for the department. I juxtaposed that with the existence of the agency. With respect to the noble Baroness, she is getting unreasonably upset about perfectly legitimate criticisms of the Government of this country, just as it is unreasonable for her to say that I should ask her to answer all these questions when the Prime Minister appears in another place and cannot be asked questions here by noble Lords.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I think that I am doing my duty in defending the honour of my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. I base my information on facts, not press reports.
In direct response to the Motion, let me make it clear that the arrangements for policy-making, management and accountability in the Prison Service are clear. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is accountable for the Prison Service. The director general is responsible for the day-to-day management of the Prison Service. The director general is directly accountable to my right honourable friend for the Prison Service's performance and operations and is also his
The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, asked about the position of Ministers of State. I have already referred to them, but perhaps I should add specifically that the Minister of State who is responsible for prisons assists the Home Secretary with his responsibilities for the Prison Service under the framework document in the same way as he assists the Home Secretary with other responsibilities.
The distinction that I have set out between accountability and responsibility is fully consistent with the general position on ministerial accountability most recently expressed in the evidence by Sir Robin Butler to the Scott Inquiry. Ministers are accountable to Parliament for all the activities of their department, but that does not mean that a Minister is directly responsible for all the actions and decisions taken in his department. It has been accepted for many years that, while a Minister is accountable for all the actions of his department, he cannot be held personally responsible for all those actions.
The noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, was concerned about the acceptance of responsibility. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made it clear that if his policies were found to be responsible for an event like the attempted escapes from Whitemoor or if he failed to implement anything that he should have implemented, he would resign. That is entirely consistent with the line taken by previous Ministers, such as my noble friend Lord Prior.
Baroness Seear: My Lords, I am afraid that I am deeply confused by the noble Baroness. She said that the Minister is responsible but that he is not personally responsible. What does that distinction mean?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am saying that Ministers are responsible for the activities of any subject under their command, but they cannot be responsible for the individual actions of a prison officer, a prison governor or evendare I say?the director general. It would be for the Home Secretary or a Minister to be accountable. The chain is that I am accountable to the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary accounts to Parliament for the whole department and for all subjects within his remit. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, will know that no Home Secretary can be held personally responsible for the activities of a single individual who may be working in any one area of policy.
In the light of recent events, my right honourable friend has considered whether any change was necessary in the arrangements for the supervision of the Prison Service. A new unit has been set up in the Home Office to support Ministers in carrying out their duties in respect of the Prison Service in accordance with the agency's framework document. It is not intended as a substitute for the policy advice which is provided by the Prison Service to Ministers. It is a further step in the development of work which has been done since the Prison Service became an agency. The unit will be staffed by civil servants. The numbers will be entirely
Let me turn now to the points which have been raised in the debate on the Prison Service generally. This debate clearly comes at a time when the Prison Service is under great pressure. There is no question but that recent events at Whitemoor and Parkhurst involved very serious breaches of security. They have damaged the credibility of the Prison Service in performing its basic task, that of serving the public by keeping in secure custody those committed by the courts. The Government and Prison Service are determined to learn from what went wrong and to put it right quickly and effectively.
Noble Lords have made it clear they are concerned about the Prison Service, and I understand their concern. Having said that, I believe that it is wrong and unhelpful to talk ourselves into thinking the Prison Service is in crisis. We should not ignore the progress the service has made in recent years. I should like to put recent events in perspective by saying something about the achievements of the Prison Service since 1979.
Physical conditions in our prisons have been transformed as a result of the most ambitious prison building and refurbishment programme since Victorian times. Twenty-one new prisons have been built since 1980, providing 11,285 new places at a cost of £1.2 billion; 13 of them have opened since 1991. Redevelopment of the existing estate has provided a further 7,500 places, mostly in new houseblocks. Another six new prisons are to be built with private sector finance. The first two, at Fazakerley on Merseyside and Bridgend in South Wales, are expected to open in 1997-98.
As a result of this sustained commitment to our prisons, over 95 per cent. of prisoners now have access to sanitation in their cell, compared to 46 per cent. in 1981. The service is on course to provide all prisoners with access to sanitation at all times by February 1996, the target recommended by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. That will mean an end to the much criticised practice of slopping out.
As recently as 1987, over 5,000 prisoners were sharing three to a cell designed for one prisoner. The practice of "trebling" was eliminated in 1994, and no prisoners have been held three to a cell since then. Furthermore, on 31st December 1994, 7,754 prisonersthat is, 16 per cent.were held two to a cell designed for one. That is a far lower proportion than only a few years ago. All that has been achieved despite the very substantial rise in the prison population in the past two years, to which noble Lords have referred, and is due to the major building programme which has been, and is being, carried out.
The noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, queried the point about treblingwhere three prisoners share a cell designed for one. The noble Lord was absolutely right to say that no prisoners have been held three to a cell designed for one since March 1994. The service's target for the current financial year, 1994-95, is to ensure that the average number of prisoners held three to a cell is fewer than the previous year. I have referred
The pace of change and improvement has continued since the service became an executive agency in April 1993. Since then, there has actually been a 40 per cent. reduction in escapes; a 43 per cent. reduction in temporary release failures, and a 23 per cent. reduction in prisoners absconding. Prisoners are spending more time in purposeful activity founded on work, education and training. Until recently, it was not unknown for prisoners to spend 23 hours a day locked in their cells. Now, about half our prisons are unlocking prisoners for 12 hours or more on weekdays, and on average prisoners are spending over 26 hours a week engaged in purposeful activity. Furthermore, the average cost per prisoner place was actually reduced by 3 per cent. in real terms last year.
From what I have said, it will be clear that the Government are not backtracking, as some, including the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, have suggested, on the seminal report on prisons prepared by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the subsequent White Paper, Custody, Care and Justice. I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for the way in which he has recognised the Prison Service's achievements since his report was published. The White Paper, published in 1991, welcomed the Woolf Report and accepted almost all of its recommendations. Most of them have since been implemented. Progress has been made in all of the 12 areas identified by that White Paper as priorities.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the Government both recognised that a balance has to be struck between security and control on the one hand, and just and humane treatment of prisoners on the other. That philosophy is at the heart of the service's work, and is reflected in its statement of purpose. However, in the light of recent eventsI stress those wordsit is clear that the service's priority for the present must be to focus on basic security and security procedures. I make no apology for that.
To that end, the first task is to implement the recommendations of the report of Sir John Woodcock's inquiry into recent events at Whitemoor. The Home Secretary announced on 19th December that he had accepted all 64 recommendations in that report. A timetable for implementation will be published very shortly.
The Home Secretary has asked Sir John Learmont to report by December 1995 on progress made on the implementation of Sir John Woodcock's report. He has also asked Sir John Learmont to carry out an independent assessment of events at Parkhurst, and the findings of his reports will be published. Other immediate measures include security audits at all closed establishments, which are being carried out now.
The Learmont inquiry will not cut across the work of the inspectorate. The Learmont inquiry is to focus on one major aspect of the Prison Service's activities; that is, security. The inspectorate looks at the regime and conditions, including security, at specific establishments.
The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, was concerned about geophones. Parkhurst is undergoing a major programme of building work, including essential security work. The installation of a perimeter alarm system, including geophones, had to waitthat was on adviceuntil building work was complete. The Home Secretary was advised that the system would not have functioned effectively while that building work was under way. Work on installing a perimeter alarm system began on 5th Decemberas your Lordships know that was before the escapeand will be completed by March.
An independent disciplinary inquiry led by Sir David Yardley into events at Whitemoor is under way, and a separate disciplinary inquiry into the events at Parkhurst, led by the Deputy Chief Executive of the Scottish Prison Service, will start shortly.
Noble Lords have mentioned the circumstances surrounding the removal of the governor of Parkhurst. As a disciplinary inquiry will be taking place, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on that in any detail. I can confirm, however, that the decision to move the governor was taken by the Director General of the Prison Service, not the Home Secretary. I should also emphasise that that decision was taken for operational reasons, to ensure effective, undistracted management of one of our high security prisons. It does not in any way pre-judge the outcome of the forthcoming disciplinary inquiry.
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