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Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, will the noble Baroness give way? What she has just said is nonsense. I specifically referred to the programme at the prison. I very much wish that in future she actually listens to speakers in this House rather than make a comment of that sort which indicates that she did not pay the slightest attention to what was being said.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I take exception to what the noble Lord has just said. I listened extremely carefully to what he said. I can say that the overall tone of the noble Lord's speech is that almost nothing has happened. In fact, he said, "How have Ministers stood by for six years and seen nothing done?" I have just given a substantial catalogue of what has been done. Ministers have not stood back in those six years and done nothing.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, I did not say that Ministers had done nothing. When I receive—as I am sure I will—a letter of apology from the noble Baroness at the end of this week, in that letter she will be able to confirm that I did not say that Ministers had done nothing. I said that six years ago a highly critical report was produced by the Chief Inspector of Prisons. In that situation the record of Ministers was lamentable

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because some of the criticisms in the most recent report were precisely the same criticisms made in the report six years before.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I shall be just as robust in my answer. Ministers have presided over a programme of work costing £33 million and they have in train expenditure of a further £20 million. A great deal is being done and a great deal has been achieved. I have also put on record that a great deal more needs to be done. I believe that the overall tone of the noble Lord's speech hardly recognised any of that work.

The inspection report observes that progress at Leeds has been hampered by overcrowding at the prison. The population pressures have been increased by the need to maintain the major refurbishment programme of Victorian prisons in order to bring them up to modern standards and, in particular, to fulfil our commitment to provide all prisoners with 24-hour access to sanitation within the next year.

Any reduction in the capacity at Leeds would almost certainly have the effect of placing prisoners in police cells, where the conditions and facilities would be substantially worse than would be available at Leeds.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, and the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that the answer to this particular conundrum is easy: we should simply imprison fewer people. The Government's position in this respect is, however, quite clear: it is for the courts to determine the appropriate sentence in any particular case. Our job, which we are undertaking with vigour, is to ensure that prisoners are held securely and humanely, and that appropriate programmes are provided to tackle prisoners' offending behaviour and to prepare them for release. I must defend my right honourable friend who has said that prison works. He has said that prison works for some people, but he is also robust and vigorous in making sure that non-custodial sentences also work.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, is there not a contradiction in this in that, on the one hand, the Government are boasting, as at the Conservative Central Council this weekend, about the fall in the crime rate while, on the other hand, the Minister is recognising that the prison population has increased from around 40,000 to around 50,000? Are magistrates and courts being perverse and ignoring the wisdom of the Government or is there some truth in what we are saying: that the Government have been encouraging more custodial sentences and that that is the major cause of the increase in the prison population?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, all that I can say is that the Government hope and wish to see appropriate sentencing. However, the Government have no locus in court when sentences are passed by judges and magistrates.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, what is the explanation? Why is the prison population increasing while the crime rate is falling?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, it is because people are being sentenced to custody by the courts. The fall in crime has happened over the past two years. All that I

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can say is that my right honourable friend believes that prison works—perhaps I should add that many members of the public believe the same. It is important that some people are put into custody to protect the general public. It is also the case that my right honourable friend supports robust non-custodial sentences where appropriate.

Despite the ongoing redevelopment work at Leeds, and the population pressures, credit should be given to the staff there for their achievements. They have been able to double the number of prisoners who have access to daytime education, and to offer prisoners group work schemes covering areas such as substance abuse, anger control and personal development, and provide access to the job club.

There remains much to be done at Leeds. But the Prison Service, both nationally and locally, is investing considerable money and energy in addressing the shortcomings. The inspections were carried out in May and June last year. Much has happened at both establishments since then to address the shortcomings identified by the inspection and to build on the prisons' strengths.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, was concerned about contracting out. All contracts for privately managed prisons include penalty clauses for failure to deliver contracted services. Those are being enforced. The noble Lord also asked why nothing was being done in response to the 1989 report. Much was done between 1989 and 1994 and I have reported already that slopping out ended for 600 prisoners. Two new wings have been opened, with increased ancillary services. It is not right to say that either Ministers or the director general of the Prison Service have taken no action.

The noble Lord was concerned about the chief inspector's criticism of design features. If the noble Lord will allow me, I shall write to him on the detailed criticisms that he made. I shall give him a comprehensive reply and make a copy available to all who have spoken in the debate, as well as placing a copy in the Library.

I have been asked whether contracted-out prisons have to reach the Prison Service's performance targets. The answer is that they do. Performance targets are being introduced across the Prison Service, but at contracted-out prisons there are financial penalties for not achieving the targets.

To answer a point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, the aim of privately managed prisons is to raise standards and improve value for money throughout the Prison Service. Every pound saved by efficiency is another pound that can be spent in the public sector. There are encouraging signs that competition is proving to be a spur to higher standards and greater cost efficiency throughout the Prison Service. Traditional attitudes and work practices are having to change to improve competitiveness. The private sector will provide sustained competition and a source for comparison with the directly managed sector. Private sector prisons are under more scrutiny than those operated by the public sector. Apart from the usual

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oversight by HMCIP and the board of visitors, a Prison Service controller is based at each prison to ensure that the contract is being delivered.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, I used to be considered the fastest speaker in the House, but the noble Baroness has outdistanced me by a mile. However, I should like to ask her whether she feels any moral objection to putting people (perhaps rightly) into custody and then allowing other people to make a profit out of it. I know that the Minister is a moral woman, so does she have any moral qualms at all about that?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the most important thing is that the prisons should be properly run. If they can be run more cost-effectively, that will benefit the Prison Service, the public sector and those who have to pay, the taxpayers. Staffing levels are a matter for UKDS, the company, to determine. The Prison Service monitors the service which UKDS provides. If it fell below the standard required because of a shortage of staff, the company would need to employ more staff to bring the level of service up to what is required.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, mentioned staff training. Initial training for uniformed staff is based on the required Prison Service model, with strong emphasis from UKDS on maintaining good relationships with prisoners. However, experience has shown a need for more assertiveness training, and that has been incorporated.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, referred to the criticisms about conditions for vulnerable prisoners. The unit for vulnerable prisoners which was seen by the inspectorate was closed in November, and a new one was opened in B-Wing, ending slopping out for that group of prisoners. The noble Lord also referred to

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schedule 2 of the company's contract and suggested that it was not enforceable. That is precisely the problem that we shall be overcoming from May by introducing performance measures into the contracts. The companies will then be held fully accountable.

Much has been said about overcrowding. Overcrowding has been virtually eliminated. The number of prisoners sharing a cell has been cut dramatically, and trebling has been eliminated altogether. The largest prison building programme since Victorian times is taking place, and 21 new prisons have been opened since 1985. That programme has created over 11,000 new prison places at a cost of £1,200 million. Furthermore, 8,000 new places have been built at existing establishments since 1979. Those new places have allowed poor quality accommodation to be closed, and have ensured that the growth in the prison population has not been reflected in overcrowding. In 1987-88, an average of over 5,000 prisoners shared three to a cell designed for one. That has now been totally eliminated. In 1987-88, an average of nearly 13,400 prisoners shared two to a cell designed for one. By 27th February this year, that had been reduced to 7,900 and is improving all the time.

Prisoners are now spending more time in regime activities. Average hours spent by prisoners in constructive activity increased from 23.7 hours per week in 1992-93 to 26.2 hours in the period April 1994 to January 1995. That is an 11 per cent. increase. The proportion of prisoners who remain "unlocked" for 12 hours or more on weekdays has increased from 24 per cent. in March 1993 to 36 per cent. in January 1995.

I have agreed that much needs to be done, but I appreciate this opportunity to place on the record what is being achieved and how the issues are being addressed.

        House adjourned at two minutes before eight o'clock.

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