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11 Mar 1996 : Column 686

7.46 p.m.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, I am always quick to support any Motion introduced by my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey, partly out of party loyalty to my esteemed deputy leader, and partly because he is a convinced penal reformer who may not always be free to speak his mind or from his heart as he would wish. Nevertheless, he remains a convinced penal reformer in the eyes of all of us.

My noble friend interpreted his Unstarred Question in narrow terms. Over the years I have introduced a good many Unstarred Questions and noble Lords have spoken to them widely, interpreting them as they wished. I beg leave to do the same tonight. I agree with all that my noble friend said about the need to treat prisoners who have been told that they are to serve a life-long sentence in the way suggested by Judge Tumim in his report.

I return to Myra Hindley, but she is not the only prisoner known to me in that category. Dennis Nilsen is another example. There is no question of him coming out for many years. He has been forbidden to have his music published outside the prison even for charitable purposes. That case bears directly on the Unstarred Question. Why should Dennis Nilsen not be able to have his music published outside the prison, even for charitable purposes and when there is no question of personal profit? He has been told--I believe that this is true of other prisoners in Whitemoor also--that in future he must not have both a typewriter and a keyboard in his cell. He has to choose one or the other. The man has done terrible things, but he is a creative man. He has written an essay on how he became a murderer, which has been published by Ruth Rendell in an anthology on murder. I take him as an example to show that Myra Hindley is not the only person I have in mind.

To be quite frank, discussing whether prisoners who have been told that they will never be released should be treated a little better is rather like discussing whether those who are to be hanged should be entitled to a silken rope. I believe that that was once accorded to an ancestor of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. I am afraid that in my view the whole idea of one man or woman who happens to be the Home Secretary saying to another human being, "You will never come out; you will die in prison", is obscene, or even worse if such words were in your Lordships' vocabulary.

I do not want to blame Mr. Howard for this. I am afraid that I blame him for many things, but I am not entitled to blame him for this. For quite a while, like most of the public, I had assumed that this was some new ploy by Mr. Howard--not so; this was introduced secretly, slyly, covertly, by Mr. Waddington, now the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, in 1990.

It was an unprecedented move in British history to say that someone should never come out of prison. It was introduced in 1990 without the public being told. As far as I am aware, Mr. Howard has not confirmed to the prisoners that they will never come out. No prisoner has been told finally by Mr. Howard that he will not come out. I hope and pray that in humanity and justice, in this case at least, he will bring himself not to do so.

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My noble friend mentioned the case of Myra Hindley, so I cannot help but mention it. The press has been quick to mention it in all sorts of ways in the past few days. Let us take the way that woman has been treated. We know that as an infatuated young woman she did terrible things 30 years ago. The Lord Chief Justice gave her a tariff of 25 years. Then secretly, the Home Secretary, the then Mr. Waddington--because in those days it was all kept secret--gave her 30 years. Then still secretly, the then Mr. Waddington increased the sentence to life, meaning life. What possible justification did he have?

If the tariff is supposed to reflect the iniquity of the crime, which is one way of looking at it, how can the crime become worse as the years pass? It is balderdash even to suggest that. Eventually under pressure the tariffs have been published. We have now been told that a number of prisoners will serve life, meaning life, so far as one Home Secretary can say that. Mr. Waddington laid it down, but the present Home Secretary has not yet committed that enormity.

What is the solution? It is one that my noble friend mentioned. It has the party's approval. It is that the Home Secretary should be removed altogether from the process of deciding how long a mandatory life prisoner spends in prison. That is not a way-out doctrine. It applies already to discretionary life prisoners. It is only a question of applying to mandatory life prisoners the same solution as is applied to discretionary life prisoners.

It is a terrible responsibility to cast upon a politician who is anxious, not unnaturally, to secure election or re-election. He or she has the terrible responsibility of deciding whether a fellow human will rot and die in gaol. That is a terrible thought. The solution is obvious. The Penal Affairs Consortium, which includes not just penal reform organisations but prison governors and the Probation Service, has recently come out with that solution.

When people talk about prisoners who have done terrible things many years previously, do they ever think what that person may be like now? No one who knows what a prisoner is like now ever talks in that way.

I call the Conservative Evening Standard and the Daily Telegraph, which I enjoy reading, enlightened newspapers. The Evening Standard had a leading article which claimed that whatever the state of Myra Hindley's soul, she should stay in prison until she dies. The Daily Telegraph published an article in a different connection asking whether the present Lord Chief Justice compared well with the late Lord Goddard. The mention of Lord Goddard reminds some of the old-timers in the House of a speech he made 40 years ago in favour of retaining capital punishment. Referring to a man convicted of murder, he said that such a man should be destroyed.

When we say that a man or woman must remain in prison until they die, we are saying that that human being is to be destroyed, as far as it is in human power to do so. It is a detestable doctrine. I only hope that in this case at least Mr. Howard will draw back before he commits that mortal sin.

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7.55 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, I listened with interest to both speakers. I should like to begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, on initiating this useful debate. If his quest is to obtain information, and if he is saying that it is an act of desperation to use the Unstarred Question system to obtain information, he has not written to me asking for the information, because had he done so I would have provided answers to his questions by letter.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I did not say it was in desperation. I did not say I had any difficulty in obtaining information. I wanted information to be in the public sphere. This is an effective way of achieving that. I should have thought that the Government would have wished Starred Questions and Unstarred Questions to be in accordance with the Companion to Standing Orders of the House which says that we should be seeking information.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I was not querying that this is not a proper process to use. I am delighted to come to the Dispatch Box to use it. If the noble Lord were to see a video re-run of the debate he would see that he appeared to make the point--I was receiving it rather than that he was saying it--that the reason he was putting down this Unstarred Question was to seek information. Information is something that can be ascertained in a number of different ways.

I started by saying that I congratulated the noble Lord, because this has been a useful debate to hold publicly. The subject of the debate has been prisoners with what I will refer to as whole life tariffs. They are the prisoners told by the Secretary of State that they will not be released from prison.

Before referring to them specifically I should like to remind the House that this is not a new problem. The prison service has long experience of dealing with a small number of prisoners who face spending their lives in prison.

The whole life tariff prisoners form a very small group--18 in all. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has set only one of these tariffs. The other 17 were set by previous Secretaries of State. As a result of the decision by your Lordships' House in the case of Doody and others those 17 have had their tariffs disclosed to them retrospectively and have been given the opportunity to make representations. Those who make representations will have their tariffs considered afresh. In the meantime I do not propose to disclose their names.

The 18 whole life tariff prisoners are at present dispersed among 10 prison establishments; 15 of the individuals are Category A prisoners. One of them is aged over 70 and another one is over 60.

Given the small numbers and the range of ages it is neither practical nor desirable for the prison service to provide a special regime for these prisoners. Following the Doody judgment, to which I have just referred, all mandatory life sentence prisoners are now told of the judicial recommendation on the period to be served and

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the tariff set by Ministers. So whole life tariff prisoners now know exactly where they stand. But their life in prison continues to reflect their particular circumstances and needs.

Like all life sentence prisoners they have a life sentence plan which is updated every year. They take part in the regimes of the establishments where they are held. Those regimes will aim to provide a balanced programme of work, education and training activities to cater for the physical and mental well-being of the prisoners. The work element is an option for prisoners reaching retirement age. If they decide not to work they will be paid as unemployed prisoners, with an additional allowance if they are willing to undertake light work.

Whole life tariff prisoners come within the incentives and earned privileges schemes operating in prisons in the same way as any other prisoner, although community visits are not available to them. They have the same arrangements for visits, telephone calls and letters as other prisoners, to help them maintain family links, which are considered to be important. And where possible they will be located sufficiently close for their families to visit.

The prison service does nevertheless recognise that there is a group, small but growing, of elderly life sentence prisoners, not just those with whole life tariffs. At the end of last year there were 157 life sentence prisoners aged over 60; 151 of them were male and six were female. Of the total number, three were over 80 and another 25 were over 70. The oldest male life sentence prisoner is aged 84 and oldest female life sentence prisoner is 69.

Governors, healthcare staff and prison officers all play their part in providing for the particular needs that go with old age as part of their overall responsibility of care. Sentenced prisoners are offered a full health assessment at least every three years. All prisoners are seen by medical staff when a health problem arises and those in receipt of regular medication will have regular reviews.

The prison service's directorate of healthcare is currently compiling a health strategy for prisoners and staff and has particularly identified the needs of older prisoners among its topics, including a target for women prisoners of cervical and breast screening in line with the NHS. The prisons board should be considering it this May after a period of internal and external consultation and the strategy will contain guidance on particular health needs and on good practice.

Elderly life sentence prisoners have available to them the full range of prison healthcare services. Some prisoners who are ill or infirm may need to be looked after in a prison healthcare centre; or, if an older prisoner has a medical problem which fails to respond to primary medical care within the prison, specialist care can be obtained in NHS hospitals as it would if the prisoner were living in the community. Alternatively, some establishments hold general medical and other specialist clinics run by local NHS consultants at which the prisoner's medical management is reviewed in conjunction with prison healthcare staff.

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If a prisoner's condition deteriorates or a new problem occurs, such as a heart attack, the prisoner can be transferred to a local NHS hospital for assessment and treatment. In other cases, where there are problems of mobility, the prison healthcare staff will advise on the most suitable location in the establishment and on any limitations on work or activity. Prisoners over retirement age, as I have said, have the choice of not working in any case.

Governors and prison staff can help by providing wheelchairs, by locating elderly or infirm prisoners at ground level, by giving help in writing letters and so on. A development of particular interest is the special unit at present being commissioned at Kingston Prison, Portsmouth, for male life sentence prisoners aged 60 years and over. An existing accommodation block is being refurbished and will include specialist facilities for older prisoners. Its aim is to help elderly prisoners progress towards eventual release. The unit has 25 places and should receive its first prisoners this May.

The refurbished accommodation will have lavatory and shower facilities suitable for disabled prisoners with poor mobility. It will also provide a degree of separation for any elderly prisoners who are liable to be bullied by other inmates. It is a low-cost scheme and, in my view, a very imaginative one.

The prison service is at present reviewing its policy and guidance to governors on managing prisoners with physical disabilities. All types of physical disability will be taken into account, including problems such as reduced mobility and dexterity arising particularly among the elderly. As part of this, governors will be completing questionnaires on the numbers of physically disabled prisoners, where they are located and what facilities are provided for them. As part of this also the prison service will be working with the Royal National Institute for the Deaf, the Royal National Institute for the Blind, the British Deaf Association and the Royal Association of Disability and Rehabilitation.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, made an interesting comment about the powers of the Home Secretary as regards whole life tariffs. He made clear his position and that of his colleagues. It disagrees with the view of his Front Bench Shadow Home Secretary who believes that, on balance, the Home Secretary should retain the power to determine tariffs for mandatory life sentences.

The noble Lord also referred to Roy Hall, or Roy Fontaine, as he is often called. As the noble Lord said, Roy Hall is at Full Sutton Prison and a possible transfer to Kingston Prison, Portsmouth, was considered last year but refused. According to the noble Lord, Roy Hall was refused a piece of equipment; I believe that it was a word processor or a typewriter--

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