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House of Lords

Thursday, 14 October 2004.

The House met at eleven of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Southwark): The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prisons: Family Visits

Baroness Stern asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Government recognise the importance that maintaining meaningful family contact has in keeping families together. Social visits represent one way of facilitating this. While arrangements can always be improved, the Prison Service works hard to provide a positive environment for family visits within the constraints of prison security. As part of this effort, an increasing number of prisons organise extended family visits and family days.

Baroness Stern: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that helpful reply and for his comment that arrangements can always be improved. The Minister will be aware that the number of visits to prisoners has fallen by one-third over five years while the prison population has risen by a one-fifth. Noble Lords may be aware that in order to have a visit, prisoners' family members have to phone and book. Has the Minister seen the recent report on one prison by the Chief Inspector of Prisons? After complaints from visitors, the Chief Inspector's team tried to phone. It took 11 attempts over the course of 25 hours before it received an answer. Has the Minister considered asking the Prison Service to make answering those phone calls a priority and to have as a target for answering them a certain number of minutes, rather than hours?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a telling point. The issue that she has raised is important. The Prison Service is giving careful consideration to ways in which the hotline service can be improved. As I said in my initial response, we know that improvements can always be made and we continually strive to achieve improved levels of service, particularly in visitor booking.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the real problem is our unacceptably high prison population? We have the worst record in western Europe and, as a result, we shunt inmates from one prison to another. It is almost impossible for people on a limited income to visit relatives because of the cost involved.
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Bearing in mind also the limited opportunities for purposeful activity in prison, what is being done to reduce our prison population?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the prison population has indeed increased. In part, that is a result of the effectiveness of the criminal justice system. If people commit offences that are imprisonable, they face the possibility of being imprisoned. No one would say with hand on heart that it is desirable to have an ever rising prison population, but that is what governments have to deal with in the real world. We are striving to improve access to prisons for prisoners' close relatives and children and we have been taking steps to achieve that. There were some 60,000 assisted prison visits, financed through the Prison Service, last year. That is a record. That means that those families who are on low incomes and suffer a level of deprivation have the opportunity to visit prisons by way of a funded visit.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, what progress is being made in helping visitors who have a disability, remembering that visits sometimes involve long distances and that many disabled people are elderly as well as severely disabled?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I cannot give a precise response to the noble Baroness. The Prison Service recognises the importance of making visitor areas accessible. That matter is of concern. I am happy to write to the noble Baroness to provide her with some details and some examples of work undertaken in the Prison Service to ensure that access is available for those are disabled and seek to make a prison visit.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, to what extent has it become more difficult in recent years to place prisoners in establishments that are reasonably close to their homes? Compared with whatever period the Minister cares to deal with five or 10 years ago, it is now much more difficult for families to gain access to their husbands or sons.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we accept that there will be difficulties in managing the prison population at a time when prison numbers have been increasing. On the best estimates available, some 65 per cent of all those who are in prison are housed within a 50-mile radius of their home or the court in which they were sentenced, which is an indicator of where they are likely to live. Only 14 per cent of prisoners are further than 100 miles away from their place of residence or their assumed place of residence. We recognise the difficulties and strive to accommodate the access needs of those who wish to make visits, but, as I said at the outset, there is clearly much more that needs to be done to ensure that that access is much more easily attainable.

Lord Elton: My Lords, how long after a prisoner is moved are his next of kin told of his new place? How often do his next of kin, when visiting, find that they have wait outside the prison in the rain for a long period before they are admitted?
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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am not sure that we keep records on rainfall and attempts to visit prisons. I do not wish to make light of the point, which I understand perfectly well. As soon as is practicable and reasonable in the circumstances, families are advised of any movements that have been made by a member of the family who is in prison.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: My Lords, visitor centres, which are relevant to the previous question, play a crucial role in the quality of prisoners' families' visits. The Prison Service states that it has 110 visitor centres, although only 85 are properly manned and giving a necessary and effective service. Thirty prisons have nothing at all, including the newest women's prison, where they have to make do with the car park. Does the Minister agree that visitor centres must be more than simply waiting rooms with a lavatory and some refreshments? What plans are there to turn the current 25 waiting rooms into proper visitor centres?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, my data suggest that, out of 141 prisons, 112 have access to a visitor centre of some description. Eighty of those prisons have play areas in the visit halls, which is an important statistic. More importantly still, it suggests that there is a high degree of concern to ensure that a more accommodating area is available for those families who visit with children and young people. I do not have a schedule of works to upgrade and improve visitor areas, but on my visits to prisons, I have seen some very good examples of the facilities that are provided. We accept that there is always more that can be done. Each governor in each prison must make a judgment as to where he wishes to place his investment in terms of upgrading visitor centres and providing that facility and service.

Trespass: Royal Palaces

Lord Renton asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have been considering whether it is necessary to create a specific offence of trespass for certain royal and government sites. We hope to be able to come to a conclusion shortly.

Lord Renton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer as far as it goes. Is she aware that although, each year, thousands of people enter Buckingham Palace and Holyrood, unlawful intruders occasionally penetrate
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them, but commit only non-criminal trespass in doing so? Indeed, a few years ago, one of them even climbed up to Her Majesty's bedroom and committed merely a non-criminal offence of trespass. As an international terrorist might commit trespass in either royal palace, should it not be made a serious criminal offence?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very important point, which is why Her Majesty's Government have given the matter anxious attention. He will know that such activities can be addressed under a number of Acts, but that no specific offence applies. That is the issue to which we are now giving the most careful consideration. We think there may be a strong argument for introducing a specific offence of criminal trespass in relation only to Her Majesty's premises and perhaps to certain other secure sites.

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