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The Earl of Longford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. If it had come from the heroic noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, I should have regarded it as very satisfying. However, coming from such an esteemed penal reformer as the noble Lord, I must accept it with qualified optimism. It has taken the Government a year to make up their minds about the issue.
Will the noble Lord take it from someone who visits prisons twice a week that some years ago it was much easier for visitors to get into a prison? Is he aware that the situation is no better than it was when I raised the issue in January? In case the noble Lord wonders about my credentials, I received a letter of thanks from no less a person than the former Home Secretary, Mr. Michael Howard. You cannot say more than that, can you?
Is the Minister aware that on a recent visit to a prison I was escorted in by an officer at the invitation of the governor. The gentleman at the desk refused to let me in. The production of a bus card with a photograph of myself--perhaps not very attractive, but I should have thought compelling--was not good enough for him. He had to ring the governor, who gave the all clear. Is the noble Lord aware of the present difficulties?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am aware of the present difficulties, not least because the noble Earl was good enough to tell my office about them this morning. It is true that in some circumstances it may well be more difficult to get into prison than it was some years ago. Our aim is to make it more difficult to get out of prison!
Although I find it difficult to believe, I am sometimes told that noble Lords go to prisons on legitimate visiting occasions but forget their passes. When they do so an alternative means of identification must be provided. I believe that that was what the noble Earl did by providing his bus pass. I know that he is a serial prison visitor and I am amazed to think that there could be any creature in the whole of the known world who was not able to recognise the noble Earl approaching a particular prison.
The noble Earl says that the Government have taken their time. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will know as well as I that discussions have been taking place for some months. We need to consult the governors carefully. There are fine issues of human decency and human rights about visitors and people who are kept imprisoned. There is also the question of maintaining security. We have consulted a large number of groups other than prison governors. Through the Family Ties Consultative Group we have consulted the Prison Reform Trust, the Howard League for Penal Reform and
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am not sure what the man at the desk thought. He may have thought that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, had been cloned and was therefore taking extreme care to allow only the real article in, and certainly not to welcome into custody Lord Lucan.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, if membership of your Lordships' House is such a unique privilege, perhaps it should not be trifled with. I always knew--all has now become clear--that the noble Earl displayed a touch of prejudice when he dealt with me across the Dispatch Box. Now he admits that had the same answer come from me it would not be acceptable; however, as it came from the noble Lord it is accepted with qualified acclaim. More seriously, while it is important for people who enter our prisons to know about the systems of inspection, identification and search, will the Minister give the House an assurance that there will be no exemption from rigorous procedures as regards anyone who enters our prisons, including staff--I include also probation staff--because of the difficulty of unauthorised articles entering our prisons and indeed illicit substances?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, makes an important point. When the Secretary of State visits prisons he is subjected to exactly the same regime as other visitors. I believe that is right. When, in a previous incarnation, I visited clients in prison I expected to produce identification. I was always happy to do so; I found no difficulty in that at all. I did not regard it as insulting. I considered that prison staff were properly carrying out their procedures in what I always found to be a polite and dignified manner.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the Minister aware that when I had occasion to visit the women's prison in Buenos Aires, Villa Devoto, in 1976 and I was asked to produce proof of identity, the authorities were perfectly satisfied with a British Library reading card? Would it
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I suppose that a Buenos Aires library reading card might be a useful substitute. I have never been to a prison in Argentina and therefore I cannot comment helpfully, fruitfully or further on the noble Lord's experience in Buenos Aires.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that there is considerable anxiety on the part of the police and those who are shooters and have guns which are subject to the Act? The timescale is short, documentation and guidance arrived late and the police have written to the Home Office expressing their concern. Even the forms are now giving rise to concern. Legal opinion has been sought which has called into question some of the items on the surrender form. This is an unsatisfactory state of affairs when the implementation scheme begins just tomorrow.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, planning for the exercise of taking in up to 200,000 handguns started in February of this year following Royal Assent. As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, indicates, we have received representations from police associations and from those officers who will be directly involved in these transactions. Some police forces would have preferred a longer period of notice. We have drawn a balance between speed and efficiency on the one hand and preparation on the other and by and large we think we have it about right.
Earl Peel: My Lords, does not the Minister agree that there appears to be considerable discrepancy in the way that the police are carrying out their duties under the compensation part of the Act? It has been brought to my attention that the Lincolnshire police are ensuring that those who hand in their weapons must do so on a certain day at a certain time. Furthermore, failure to do so may result in the police revoking firearm certificates. I am told that in South Wales the police are insisting that the handing in procedure can be done at one point only. However, by contrast, I believe that the West Sussex police are
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not entirely agree with the thrust of the noble Earl's question. Chief constables have a degree of operational autonomy which we in this country rightly cherish. The problems of a large country force are not the same as those of an urban force. I am aware of the position in South Wales. Bridgend has been nominated as a centre and that appears to have caused no particular problems to the shooting community in South Wales according to the information that I have. It is for chief constables to reach informed decisions bearing in mind operational constraints, the necessity in some circumstances to have experts present at police stations, and of course the overall financial limits that apply in administering their responsibilities.
Lord Monkswell: My Lords, bearing in mind the apparent criticism of what might be described as the public administration of this operation, and also bearing in mind the difficulties in terms of public administration that have come to the public's attention as a result of the operation of the Child Support Agency, can the Government give the House an assurance that the Civil Service as a whole will look at the whole concept of public administration as there seem to have been considerable difficulties arising from the previous administration's conduct of public affairs?
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