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Lord Rooker: My Lords, the noble Baroness has raised an interesting point, because the issue is how to prevent fires in the first place. Lots of steps can be taken. I should have thought that that was a matter for the building regulations, although one problem with such regulations is that they usually apply only to new premises, so we must consider the stock that we already have. However, under the new system, when there is a risk-based assessment for a particular building, it will be open to the fire service—in the example given by the noble Baroness, for example—to insist on self-closing doors being fitted, so that there is no issue about keeping the doors open or the doors being too heavy for the elderly and vulnerable people to open. That negates the issue of a fire certificate, which was a piece of paper that gave people comfort but did not necessarily mean that they were safe.

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that there is enough regulation concerning

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fire prevention in student accommodation, both in halls of residence and in smaller houses in multiple occupation? I ask that because I believe that there are exemptions to the housing regulations in relation to student accommodation.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, as I said earlier, that kind of premises would probably be a house in multiple occupation. People are vulnerable in such houses for lots of reasons, and we know of many fires that have happened in those circumstances. That is an issue that this House will debate, as the other place is debating, in the Housing Bill that is passing through it.

Lord Elton: My Lords, would the Minister consider repeating the valuable publicity campaign, drawing the attention of newcomers in the domestic field to the fact that throwing water on a fat fire turns it into an inferno? That is little known, and the knowledge could save many lives.

Lord Rooker: Yes, my Lords, the department will obviously consider that suggestion, and it is an ongoing campaign. It is generally speaking the case that fire is dangerous and kills, but in many cases it is the smoke that is actually the cause of death. The smoke is highly dangerous—to victims and firefighters.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, will the Minister tell us what the evidence is of decreased mortality or lesser danger in houses with smoke alarms in them? It is much easier to introduce a smoke alarm than to introduce a sprinkler system, particularly in a private house.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I cannot. All the figures that I have given come only from fires attended by the fire and rescue service. For example, if there are loads of sprinklers that are effective and put a fire out, the fire service does not get called and the fire is not included in the figures. The figures are assembled only for fires, whether malicious or accidental, attended by the fire and rescue service. They are updated constantly, which is why even the figures that I have given for 2002 are marginally provisional. Every single death certificate and inquest result is checked back to ascertain the actual cause of death. There is a problem in that one cannot always be precise about the figures from every fire; so only the fires attended by the fire and rescue service are included.

Prison Population

2.59 p.m.

Lord Dholakia asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What are the latest available figures for the prison population.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the prison population as of Friday, 20 February was 74,594. Of that total the number of sentenced prisoners was 61,365, and the number of remand prisoners 13,224.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Despite the number of initiatives taken by

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the Government the prison population remains unacceptably high. We now head the league table in western Europe and are overtaking Portugal in this particular process. Does the Minister agree that 60 per cent of those who leave prison reoffend within two years and that we now imprison twice as many women as we did when Labour came to power? Does he also agree that we need less rhetoric about how prison works and that we should make more use of non-custodial alternatives?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, of course I agree with the noble Lord that it would be much better for sentences to be served in the community. However, it is for the courts to determine sentencing and where someone should be sent. We have to bear that very important consideration in mind. If a crime is sufficiently serious and it is right to send people to prison, then of course they must be sent to prison. That is what the public expect; they expect to be protected. The Government have taken many initiatives to expand other alternatives to prison. The noble Lord has been among those who have praised us for doing exactly that.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, I commend the Minister on the extra effort that the Prison Service is putting into dealing with some of the causes of reoffending by people within a couple of years of their release from prison. However, given that more crime is alcohol related than drug related, can he explain why there is no specialist, ring-fenced, accredited alcohol treatment programme in prisons in England and Wales?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, there are accredited programmes for dealing with alcohol and drug abuse and those programmes have been very successful. I think that the Government should be congratulated on the level of investment they have put into the health service within the prison estate, and on their initiatives to try to encourage people on release to be free of drug and alcohol abuse—factors which obviously have an impact on the rate of re-offending.

Lord Laming: My Lords, although sentencing is a responsibility of the courts, the courts nevertheless need to be reassured that the probation and aftercare service is being developed to make non-custodial sentences and aftercare attractive and effective propositions for courts. Do the Government have a robust strategy to develop the probation service?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we have set up the National Offender Management Service, which brings together the probation service and Prison Service considerations to which the noble Lord referred, so that we have a coherent, cohesive and all-through service. The Government have also taken the important step of setting up the Sentencing Guidelines Council so that advice and guidance are available to the judiciary in the process of sentencing. We think that that will help ensure a better geographical spread

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within sentencing strategy and ensure that, where there is a conviction, the sentence is most appropriate to the crime.

The Earl of Dundee: My Lords, the Minister may give the impression that these prison figures are acceptable. Does he agree that current trends threaten to increase them even further? At what higher level, therefore, would he regard such figures as unacceptable?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is not for me to make a judgment on what is or is not acceptable. It is the Government's job to provide and ensure that there is adequate provision for those who are quite properly sentenced by the courts and sent to prison. It is also for the Government, as I said earlier, to ensure that an adequate range of sentences is available to the courts so that they can deal most appropriately with the lesser-order criminal activity and offences. That is exactly what we have done.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that there are only 600 places left in our prisons? Will he explain to the House what are the Government's plans when that limit has been reached?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, as I understand it, as of today the prison population is about 510 below the total usable operational capacity of the prison estate. A number of changes are being implemented at a number of establishments to make available more places for prisoners. These adjustments will mean a rapid increase in usable operational capacity, by about a further 350 additional places. In the longer term we want to reform the correctional services—an objective in which we have been aided by the advice and support of Patrick Carter. We are trying to provide a range of more effective options for sentencers. There is always proper planning for contingency measures and an examination of other opportunities for safely increasing the capacity of the prison estate.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, does the Minister accept that Schedule 19 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, inserted by the Home Secretary as his reaction to being told that he could play no further part in the sentencing of murderers, results in sentences for all serious offences increasing by at least 50 per cent? If he does accept that, what estimate do the Government give in relation to what the figures will be as a result?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I do not think that we accept the noble and learned Lord's assertion. I therefore do not think that I could make a useful prediction based on that assertion.

Lord Judd: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that one objective of penal policy must be effective rehabilitation? Does he not therefore agree that one of the grave consequences of the overcrowding is that it is very difficult to do all the work that the Prison Service would like to do in the cause of rehabilitation? Does he not further agree that the pressure of numbers in

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prison, coupled with the fact that many people in prison are mentally sick and should not be in prison at all, is leading to an unacceptable level of deaths in custody?

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