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House of Lords

Tuesday, 15th July 1997.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

Prisoners: Executive Release

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What consideration they are giving to executive release of non-violent prisoners nearing the end of their sentences, in order to bring the prison population into balance with prison capacity.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, the Government have no plans to use their executive powers of release. Executive release from prison is designed to be used as a last resort.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, will the Government bear in mind the example of Sir Winston Churchill when he was Home Secretary? Can they say whether they will also exclude from prison certain categories such as the mentally ill; political asylum seekers; young persons aged 16 and 17 years; and those on remand who have been held for more than 110 days?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am not entirely certain what aspect of the late Sir Winston's conduct the noble Lord has in mind--whether it is an invitation to cross the Floor.

Noble Lords: Twice!

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I certainly offer that to the noble Lord. The questions raised by the noble Lord are extremely important. It is not our policy that mentally disordered offenders should be imprisoned. Wherever possible they should be in hospital having specialist treatment. The question of remand is very much in the Home Secretary's mind. If we can reduce remand delays, we shall immediately, first, improve the judicial system and, secondly, relieve some of the pressures on accommodation. On an earlier occasion the noble Lord made the useful point about asylum seekers. I reassured him that detention is used sparingly and only in cases where it is felt that the person in question might abscond.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of the continued remorseless rise in the prison population? Is he further aware that one London local prison last night had precisely one space? Beyond that, it would have faced a crisis situation. Is the Minister aware that we appear to be moving once again towards the use of police cells? Can the Government take no action to deal with this situation as soon as possible?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Lord makes an extremely important point. As of yesterday, the

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prison population was 61,862. With his expertise the noble Lord will know that the prison population has been growing at the rate of 300 prisoners a week. We are taking action. We have to deal with the situation that we discovered. We are providing more places. Three new prisons are to be built. Four hundred new places were provided by refurbished wings coming back into use at Liverpool and Preston. New house-blocks have opened providing over 800 places. But I say quite categorically to the noble Lord that it is a difficult and serious situation and not one that the Home Secretary puts out of his mind.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, why is it that the previous government accepted an enormous increase in the prison population in years to come while claiming that there had been a reduction in crime during the past few years of their regime? Is the noble Lord going to tell us that, despite no evidence that crime is increasing, we have to accept this colossal increase in the prison population in the next few years?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I have quite a number of responsibilities, but giving excuses and explanations for the conduct of the last government is not one of them, happily, since there are only 24 hours in any given day. There is a plain constitutional matter here. It is for the judiciary, including the magistrates, to sentence as they believe appropriate. The Prison Service and the Government have a duty to provide accommodation. There are matters that we can attend to, not least the aspect that I referred to a moment or two ago; namely, the question of remand prisoners. It is not an easy task: one has to balance a fair number of different aspects. The House can be in no doubt at all that the Home Secretary is well aware of these matters as he has now said on a number of occasions in public speeches.

Lord Hooson: My Lords, as regards the independence of the judiciary on the one hand and the prison provision on the other, does the Minister agree that there is a stark choice for the Government and the country--that is, that we provide very much greater resources for the Prison Service or we have a complete review of sentencing policy? Is it not the Government's duty to co-ordinate these matters?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, it is; but the question is not quite as simple as the noble Lord implies. Prison is one way of dealing with offenders; it is not the only way. There are finite resources which need to be used as efficiently as possible. Plainly, the Government have an interest in sentencing policy. I have said previously--and I repeat happily now--that this Government at least believe in the closest co-operation between the Government and the judiciary, who have to deal with sentences in practice.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, does the Minister recall saying last week:

    "The Government are determined to ensure a coherent and strategically focused approach to sentencing"?--[Official Report, 9/7/97; col. 620.]

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Will the Government give earnest consideration to the recommendation made by the Lord Chief Justice in two major speeches last month that a Royal Commission should be appointed or that at least the Advisory Council on the Penal System should be resuscitated to make a detailed reinvestigation of a rational penal policy in order to restore public confidence in the administration of justice?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do remember what I said last week because I always furnish myself with a reminder of what I have said in the previous week, particularly when the noble and learned Lord is likely to remind me of it--for which I am, of course, regularly grateful. The views of the Lord Chief Justice are of enormous public importance--not simply to the Government, but to anyone who wants to inform themselves as to the rational approach to crime and punishment. Anything that the Lord Chief Justice says is given the most careful attention in the Home Office.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, may I ask the Minister--

Lord Evans of Parkside: My Lords--

Noble Lords: Cross-Benches!

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I shall keep it very short. I should like to ask the Minister whether he is aware that the firm stand that he is maintaining as to judicial discretion in sentencing is very much appreciated by some of us on this side of the House?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, there is an expression, "the kiss of death" and I very much hope that I have not just heard it. The noble Lord knows perfectly well that he and I have participated on many occasions in discussions on such questions. I believe that judicial independence is a cornerstone of our system. It is a founding principle of the way in which we conduct ourselves in this country and ought to remain so--and in so far as I have any small input to that, I shall continue to make it so.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, is it the Government's intention to implement the Crime (Sentences) Act, and particularly the provisions relating to minimum sentences? If not, what plans do the Government have for toughening sentences for persistent burglars and for persistent dealers in hard drugs?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am most obliged for that question. The Home Secretary's intention is to make an announcement on those matters within the reasonably short future.

Lord Evans of Parkside: My Lords, will my noble friend give the House an assurance that despite all the

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difficulties of housing the exploding prison population, this Government will not waste any further public money on purchasing any more prison ships?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, any Home Secretary, in holding that extremely responsible task, has constantly to focus on two questions: first, what is the demand on prison places; and, secondly, how is it to be fulfilled? Some responses to those questions are bound to be short term. As a number of noble Lords have pointed out, this is a question for the long term as well as for the immediate future.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, at the risk--

Noble Lords: Next Question!

Debt Defaulters: Imprisonment

2.47 p.m.

Lord Henderson of Brompton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether there has been any recent reduction in the number of people in prison who are debt defaulters.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the most recent figures available indicate that, on 31st May, there were 15 people in prison for non-payment of civil debt. This represents a fall of approximately 30 per cent. compared to the figure of 21 debt defaulters in prison on 30th May 1996. Civil debtors are classified as people who have been imprisoned for non-payment of maintenance, local government taxes and other debts.

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