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Lord Henley: My Lords, on this side we welcome open debate within our party on such matters. There was silence on the other side, except from the obsequiously loyal noble Earl, Lord Longford, because none of the others dares to speak unless they have received the blessing of Mr. Mandelson.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, that comes a little strange from the party of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, but I shall leave that argument at that.

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I am grateful to have the opportunity to respond to this debate. The Government are committed to the work of the Prison Service. One of our first actions was to take back formal responsibility for the service. It is now the responsibility of the Home Secretary. That was a most important step. All Ministers at the Home Office now answer all parliamentary Questions about what happens within the service. That is a change from what happened under the previous regime.

As all noble Lords have stressed, we are all aware of the pressures created by the dramatic rise in the prison population over recent years. It has been rising steeply since early 1993. In 1993 it stood at 44,600 and is now just over 65,000. When my name was first put down to respond to this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle of Bucklow--we have known each other for many years--said to me, "I see you are now an expert on prisons". I told him that I had been in many of them but I assure noble Lords, not in custody; merely as a visitor. My prison visits, however, come nowhere near the number of my noble friend Lord Longford. His record is second to none. Whenever he speaks on the subject in your Lordships' House, he does so with the benefit of his great experience.

As has been said, it is for the courts to decide who should be committed to custody and for the Government, through the Prison Service, to provide the necessary accommodation. The Prison Service has performed commendably to manage the rising prison population, but that should not be confused with an acceptance of the present state of affairs. In terms of accommodating the rising prison population, the situation is far from ideal. As has been said throughout the debate, overcrowding of prisoners brings its own pressures, with "overcrowding drafts" and prisoners facing the sudden breaking of family ties. Pressure on the services within prisons is also increasing. Overcrowding impacts on the constructive regime which not only all noble Lords, but also the Government, want to see.

We, as a government, recognise the pressure and we have taken some action. We have already audited the resources of the Prison Service and we published the outcome last July. It revealed that the Prison Service was not resourced adequately. We continue to monitor the trends in prison numbers. In the light of the latest prison population projections, the Home Secretary has made available an additional £112 million in 1998-99 to increase capacity and support regimes. I must point out that that represents an increase of 7.5 per cent. on the 1997-98 figure.

However, we are not interested solely in accommodating rising numbers; we are committed to developing positive and constructive prison programmes. Constructive regimes are essential to the aims of our policy on criminal justice because in themselves they protect the public. Noble Lords have said today that if there is a constructive regime and people do not commit further offences when they leave prison, that protects the public. We want regimes that address offending behaviour and rehabilitate offenders. Such programmes, however, must be relevant to life outside to which prisoners will return. They must also maintain relationships between the offender and his

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family and the community. We attach the utmost importance to developing constructive, challenging and well-ordered regimes.

Before I turn to some of the points raised in the debate, in particular those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Allen, I should like to deal with two matters raised by the noble Lord, Lord Henley. He asked two questions which I am able to answer. The two-year reconviction rate for prisoners released in 1993 was 53 per cent. The equivalent for community service was 54 per cent. I suggest that there is not much difference. He also asked me why Colchester had been closed. The reason was that it was too expensive. It cost £30,000 per place. But we are committed to continuing high intensity retraining at Thorn Cross, which I witnessed first hand while in Warrington, and development regimes for juveniles.

Noble Lords have discussed the sentencing policy that is presently in operation. As I said right at the beginning, it is a question of what the courts decide. There is no doubt that judges and magistrates react to public opinion as it is perceived in the newspapers. Nor is there any doubt that the former Home Secretary's belief that prison is the right thing and that more and more people should be put in custody has had an effect. As the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, said, more prisoners are being sentenced to longer and longer periods of imprisonment.

If that is occurring--this point has been raised by noble Lords on both sides of the House--what consideration is being given to alternative non-custodial sentences? First, we believe that for serious offences people should be in prison, but we should also look at what can be done to prevent people from going to prison or keeping them in the community wherever possible. It is in the public interest that a person does not go back to prison. It also means that the pressure on the prison population is reduced. As noble Lords have pointed out, in the Crime and Disorder Bill there are tough new community penalties for drug misusers and juvenile offenders, including drug treatment and testing orders, action plan orders and reparation orders. We are also keen on making greater use of modern technology in relation to tagging and curfew orders.

Two pilot schemes in Norfolk and Manchester allow courts to impose community service orders or curfew orders on fine defaulters and persistent petty offenders. We are also considering the extension of curfew orders to juveniles and the imposition of driving disqualification. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is taking a close interest in the inquiry now being conducted by a Select Committee of another place into possible alternatives to prison sentences. My right honourable friend will be considering its report and any recommendations that it may make.

It has been said many times today that this country has the largest prison population in Europe. Yes, we do. However, we should also bear in mind that other countries--for example, France--have a larger proportion of prisoners who serve shorter sentences. We are continually looking at alternatives to custodial sentences. We believe that prison should be used only where it is necessary and justified and where the offence

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is serious. There will always be some offenders for whom that is the only response. However, we do not want prison to be used if non-custodial sentences are appropriate. That is the cornerstone of the Government's policy in relation to this matter.

A good deal of time has been spent considering government policy in relation to sentencing policy. We are looking for an effective sentencing system to ensure greater consistency. The Court of Appeal is preparing sentencing guidelines for all of the main criminal offences. We are also looking at a number of different orders to keep people out of prison.

What has been the effect up to now on people in prison and what can be done in relation to it? We are concerned about it. Despite the extra £112 million, the Government accept that the situation will be extremely difficult if the present trend continues and more and more people are placed in custody. For the moment, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has provided the service with an additional £112 million, which means that spending on the Prison Service now amounts to £1,816 million. We shall continue to make use of the prison ship "Weare", build six more houseblocks, fund conversion of accommodation to cells to hold extra prisoners in new prisons and carry out absolutely essential repairs to the prison estate. It is a question of modernisation and bringing new prisons on stream.

The £112 million provides for new places in prisons. Two hundred and ninety new places were announced at the time of the audit. It will lead eventually to 1,250 more places and the placing of an additional 2,280 prisoners in existing accommodation. It also provides for additional staffing and funding of regime activities. We hope that in the short term this will help the Prison Service cope with the population rise.

This strategy relies on population projections from 1999 onwards. Does it mean a population of 82,000 or more than that? We are determined to ensure that there is adequate accommodation for those who need it. We shall ensure that we keep up with it. In the meantime, we are considering all of the methods that have been discussed today--for example, curfew orders--to keep people out of prison. One noble Lord referred to three or four prisoners sharing a cell. We have dropped down to two to a cell, and as far as I know there are not four prisoners to a cell. Certainly, we do not want to go back to the use of police cells.

The size of the prison population is a problem. It is one that will continue. There has been a huge rise to the present figure of just over 65,000. We have also seen the projections. I am as concerned as are other noble Lords by the number of female prisoners. They increased from an average of 1,580 in 1992 to 2,675 in 1997. Even so, they still formed only a small proportion (4.58 per cent.) of the prison population. I was pleased to hear the welcome given from all sides of the House to the assistant director, Ms. Jones. We all wish her well. There is a problem for her to tackle.

The unfortunate increase in the number of women prisoners has not been due, as has been suggested today, to their being licence offenders who have not paid for

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TV licences. I believe that there are only three women in prison in relation to such an offence. Unfortunately, a number have been due to drug offences.

I shall turn to what is happening about drug offences. They form one of the real problems in prisons with which we have to deal. We are trying to deal with that problem. Mandatory drug testing is taking place. If I have any good news for the House it is that the testing has shown a reduction of 19.9 per cent. to 17.1 per cent. in the number of samples which have tested positive for cannabis. Similarly the percentage of random samples showing opiate use has fallen from 5.4 per cent. to 4 per cent. Many people have been troubled as to whether prisoners are now switching from cannabis to heroin because it does not remain in the urine for so long. Up to now the testing does not show that such a change is taking place.

We have been asked about trying to prevent drugs entering prisons. That is always difficult, because prisoners must see their families. We are using sniffer dogs and searches. Unfortunately they have to include visiting children. We are doing all that we can. We do not want to move to closed visits, but governors have the right to introduce closed non-contact visits where there is drug misuse.

We have also said that those prisoners who wish to live in a drug-free environment will have VTUs available to prove that they are drug free. If they wish to prove that they are drug free and are prepared to be tested, we are trying to give them the opportunity for that. We are introducing a range of treatments to a selection of establishments. We are trying, as far as possible, as has been said today, to provide the necessary treatment for prisoners.

The same applies to mentally disordered prisoners. They pose a great problem to the Prison Service. As has been acknowledged today, we are trying to get as many as possible out of prison where there is accommodation available in the NHS. We have also been asked whether we accept that the prison health service should come under the NHS. The Chief Inspector of Prisons made that recommendation. It is being studied at the moment by Ministers. In the meantime, we are concerned to ensure that mentally disordered prisoners receive the attention that they need.

Education has been mentioned. We are keen on education. We are keen to give prisoners more opportunities for education. A more relaxed regime is being introduced. We are also introducing into the prison service the Welfare to Work programme. As noble Lords will be aware, that is part of the Government's general initiative to give 18 to 24 year-olds the skills necessary. That is even more necessary for young offenders. We are going to run a pilot programme for 18 to 24 year-olds in 11 prisons. It is scheduled to start in April when the New Deal goes through. It is being financed by £1.5 million of windfall tax. We are hoping to put 2,000 18 to 24 year-olds through the scheme. When such people leave prison we shall be giving them the advice necessary to ensure that they obtain employment. I am sure that everyone here

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will welcome those developments and initiatives in relation to education, and what is being done in relation to those who are mentally disordered.

My time is nearly running out. I hope that I have shown that the Government have already acted. They are committed to further action to ensure that the Prison Service can deliver our key priorities. As I have said, the Prison Service has a key role to play within the criminal justice system. It is already doing much to deliver our commitments, including those on developing constructive regimes and on tackling the problem of drugs in prisons.

The Government are confident that the Prison Service will continue to build on that work. Given an increasing prison population, no one pretends that that does not create severe problems. However, the Government are determined that those who commit serious crimes will go to prison, but, as I said, we are considering methods other than prison for other offences. For those in prison, the Government place emphasis on education, training and rehabilitation so that we ensure, as far as possible, that former prisoners have the opportunity to live useful lives within our society away from crime.

6.36 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale: My Lords, by overrunning his time, the Minister has left me with only a minute or two. I shall content myself with saying that it has been a fascinating debate in which we have had some learned and knowledgeable contributions. I am afraid that I am not content with the answers that we have received on some of the most important issues, but I shall read what has been said. I only hope that in Whitehall, or, perhaps more accurately, Queen Anne's Gate and Clelland House, they will read what the others have said. I thank all those who have contributed to the debate, and beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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