The hon. and learned Gentleman the Minister of State will be disturbed to know that this debate almost did not take place. I was trapped in a lift on my way to the Chamber. I thought that perhaps I ought to refer the lift to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for a breach of privilege or obstruction of a Member on his way to the Chamber, but when I made that point over the phone to the custodians of the House the doors immediately opened. I am sure the Minister would care deeply if the prison report for 1972 were not debated in this House, even at this late hour and on the Second Reading of the Consolidated Fund Bill.
The purpose of the debate is to consider certain aspects of the 1972 report ; to consider, in the light of the report, whether there are various ways still open to us further to reduce the prison population—and I shall argue that there are ; to consider whether there is any way in which we can prevent a new upturn in the prison population which the Government still seem to expect ; and, finally, to consider how far, in the light of the report, the objective of the Home Secretary, which he stated last year at the NACRO Conference, to keep people out of prison wherever possible is being fulfilled.
Necessarily, I shall have to return to some themes that I have raised in the House before, particularly in a parallel debate two years ago, also on a Consolidated Fund Bill, when I initiated a debate on the prison report for 1970. Fortunately, since then new evidence has become available so I shall not just be repeating myself.
There are, fortunately—and I most warmly welcome this—certain favourable facts brought to our attention by the report. The first is the continuing fall in the prison population, and this fall is in respect of a period before the coming into operation of the 1972 Criminal Justice Act and before the coming into operation of the experiments in noncustodial treatment associated with that Act. The prison population is still falling, but it must still be said that it is and remains unnecessarily high.
The second favourable fact that emerges is that there is less overcrowding in prisons. According to the recently published White Paper on public expenditure, there has been a reduction in the number of prisoners required to sleep three in a cell from 10,000 to 4,000 over the last three years, but there is still far too much overcrowding.
Thirdly, the report draws attention to some change in sentencing practices. It says in paragraph 5 on page 3:
In 1970 there were 216 adult males received into prison per 1,000 found guilty of indictable offences, compared with 206 per 1,000 in the following year
and the report goes on to say that the trend seems to be continuing in 1972.
But again one must here enter a qualification. One cannot rely on this trend continuing, partly because of the principle of flexibility in sentencing that we have debated in this House, and on which the Government insist to an exaggerated degree, and partly because we do not know how far this improvement in sentencing trends is due to knowledge in the courts of the fact of prison overcrowding and whether that trend might change if prison overcrowding were itself reduced as a result of the prison building programme.
Moreover, when one analyses the prison population it is clear that the rate of fall is too slow. There is still the expectation, to which I have referred, that the prison population will show an upward trend again although to less horrifying figures than were anticipated in previous years.
Certain questions arise. There has been this marked fall in the forward estimates. It is worth drawing the attention of the House to the extent of the fall. The Public Expenditure White Paper to 1976–77 stated that the main assumption for formulating the prison building programme was an increase in the prison population from 48,800 to 62,250. For the following year—1977–78—the White Paper gave as the main assumption an increase from 47,850 to 59,350. This year's White Paper shows a drastic fall. The main assumption in the Public Expenditure White Paper is now an increase to 1978–79 from 43,400 to 47,600—in other words, about 12,000 less than in the previous year's White Paper.
What is the effect of this change in estimate on the prison building programme? The White Paper to 1978–79 assumes the completion of just over 11,000 new places within the period compared with 14,000 envisaged previously. Recently, however, we have had public expenditure cuts announced. In an answer to the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) on 21st December 1973 it was stated that there would be cuts of
£18 million on capital programmes and £10 million on the procurement of goods and services".
It was also stated that
The main effect will be to reduce considerably new building for the courts, police, prisons and fire services."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st December 1973 ; Vol. 866, c. 462.]
Here we are interested in the prisons, and I should like the Minister of State to give us more information on the effect on the prison building programme specifically of these further public expenditure cuts and also the effect on the development of new measures of non-custodial treatment.
Yes. The figures I have given are those that were given for the Home Office on 21st December. They were not broken down as between the different elements in the Home Office programme. That is why I am putting these questions to the hon. and learned Gentleman.
There is another area in which we see favourable and welcome developments. I refer to medical remands, which we have many times discussed together. There has been a substantial fall of about 1,000 in the year under review in the number of medical remands. Nevertheless, it is still disturbing, and the report admits it to be disturbing, that the out-patient facilities which the Home Office provided before this period at Holloway and during 1972 at Preston, Risley and Durham are so little used.
I have previously congratulated the Home Office on taking the step of providing these clinics, and I certainly congratulate the Department again—I regarded this as a definite forward step to reducing the number of medical remands in custody—but the disappointing use of these out-patient clinics continues.
In refreshing my memory of our debate two years ago, I noticed that the hon. and learned Gentleman, when speaking only of Holloway, said:
I am afraid that disappointingly little use has been made of the scheme."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th December 1971 ; Vol. 828. c. 789.]
The 1972 report repeats the disappointment which the hon. and learned Gentleman felt two years ago.
In paragraph 77 the report says:
It is disappointing that courts have made so little use of the service at all four establishments and that it is still working well below its capacity".
What is the use of setting up these facilities if they are not used? In 1972, only 39 women were remanded on bail to the out-patient clinic at Holloway and up to 30th November 1973 only 38 appointments had been made to the outpatient clinic at Holloway—according to an answer given to me on 21st December 1973. That is a pathetic record. I was told, too, that there had been 112 appointments to Brixton.
I know from answers to Questions and from other information that how to stimulate this use is being studied and that further efforts are being made, but does not the Home Office consider that further action is now justified to ensure that these facilities are more adequately used?
I turn to social inquiry reports, again a subject that we debated in December 1971 and several times since, particularly because the amount of use of social inquiry reports and the effect of the 1968 circulars had been found to be less satisfactory than the Home Office imagined at the time of the previous debate. What is the situation now? We had an inquiry last year and there has been an answer to a Question that I put. It says that the detailed results of the inquiry are not in a form suitable for publication. Remembering the content of our talk about that inquiry some months ago, I was not particularly surprised to hear that the results of that inquiry were not in a form suitable for publication.
However, there is one decision to be made and perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman can give us a little more information about it. The decision is that it is not at present necessary or desirable to make rules under Section 57 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967. In other words, social inquiry reports will not be enforced by law in the sort of case covered by the 1968 circulars.
Why was that decision made? Was it made because the picture had been found to be much better than in the summer of 1972 when this matter was being discussed, or does the Home Office intend still to rely on the type of exhortation which appeared to have failed when these figures were announced in the summer of 1972?
I come to the chapter on unconvicted and unsentenced prisoners. The report welcomes the fact that the relative increase in the average daily population of the prisons between 1968 and 1970 had been stabilised, but the report says:
… the current figures still give grounds for serious concern…".
It is a high figure which still shows that a slight increase has occurred despite what is implied in paragraph 76 for a speeding up in the provision of social inquiry reports and medical reports and so on. However, the Home Office has issued a circular, about which we hear, encouraging the courts to remand for shorter periods when reports can be made in shorter periods. The report says that in the three months following the issue of the circular, about 45 per cent. of all remands in custody under Section 14(3) and Section 26 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1952 were for 14 days or less.
Unfortunately, what the report does not tell us is what the percentage was previously, so we do not know whether the 45 per cent. was an improvement. As the report speaks for only three months, we do not know whether the improvement, if it was an improvement, continued. Can any light be thrown on this matter and on what action is intended to deal with the matter which the report states is giving serious concern? When will decisions be made on the bail report, which is in the hands of the Minister and is to be published?
I come to the information in the report on the imprisonment of Commonwealth immigrants or immigrants under the aliens orders of 1920–1953 and the Commonwealth Immigration Acts for the period 1962 to 1968. The report shows a very considerable increase in the numbers imprisoned and in the average daily population. Although relative to the total population this is a small factor, it is a serious factor. I find it extraordinary that the hon. and learned Gentleman, in answering certain Questions of fact which I have put to him on this subject, has had to tell me that the detailed information requested is either not available or could not be obtained without disproportionate cost.
Most of these people are not criminal in any sense. Many, presumably, are eventually admitted to the United Kingdom. Many will have suffered considerably before they arrived here. Surely the greatest care is necessary to ensure that people are not imprisoned without proper cause. But there is no information in answer to my Questions.
Among the things which the hon. and learned Gentleman is unable to tell me are whether the number in prison has continued to increase in 1973, how many were bailed before a decision was made, the average duration of imprisonment and what proportion of those imprisoned are eventually allowed entry. On all these subjects the hon. and learned Gentleman professes ignorance. He says that the information is not available or that it could not be obtained without disproportionate cost.
Ignorance of facts such as these can conceal grave injustices and can prevent consideration of alternative ways of handling these matters. It is just not good enough to say that the answers are not available or cannot be obtained without disproportionate cost. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will go further into this matter and make sure that information which is very relevant to the making of policy in this area becomes available to him.
I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman one question about the answer in which he said that when possible such people are released pending a decision but that often this would not be justified. Who decides whether there should be a release pending a decision and what are the criteria for such a release? When, for example, is it considered justifiable to release a person pending a decision? We do not know what value to put on such a statement as the hon. and learned Gentleman has included in his answer unless we know the facts. I do not believe that the hon. and learned Gentleman knows what value to place on his answer unless he knows the facts.
I come next to a rather larger area of the matter of fine defaulters. I refer to this matter because the number of people imprisoned for default of payment of a fine has been rising since 1968, a year when there was a significant fall following the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 1967. The number is now greater than it was 10 years ago, since when there has been a period in which cases of immediate imprisonment have fallen. It includes a large number of people who were fined for non-imprison-able offences. How many people were fined for non-imprisonable offences and then the number imprisoned for non-payment of the fine is not known to the Home Office. That it is not known we gather from an answer which the hon. and learned Gentleman gave on 16th October. These are not people who create any danger to the public or who fall within the Home Secretary's nacro category of those who ought to be imprisoned. They have been fined, many of them for non-imprison-able offences.
What is clear is that the safeguards against imprisonment in default of payment of fine incorporated in the 1967 Act and which had the immediate impact I referred to a moment ago have not prevented the fining of persons who have no money to pay. That fact must be obvious to anyone who has watched the fining of vagrants and drunkeness offenders.
On 11th June 1973 the hon. and learned Gentleman gave me information about a study of weekly incomes of fine defaulters received into Birmingham Prison in 1966. 14 per cent. had no income at all. I doubt whether the situation has changed, even allowing for inflation. Presumably if a person had no money in 1966 inflation would not provide any money now. There is a category of drunkenness offenders which is frequently not given time to pay precisely because it includes a large vagrant element.
An interesting report of the Home Office Research Unit by Mr. Paul Softley, "A Survey of Fine Enforcement", showed a high rate of default among drunkenness offenders. They are, of course a stage army who appear again and again. We now have additional information which I must thank the Home Office Ministers and officials for arranging to provide. It will appear in HANSARD in reply to a Question I put down. The information shows in different sentence bands the proportion of their sentences served by persons committed to prison in default of payment of fines. The object was to determine how readily fines are paid when the ultimate weapon of enforcement—imprisonment—is used.
Surely, prima facie, if people do not pay on imprisonment or shortly afterwards, or if they do not have enough money on them, in many cases it will be because they do not have the money. The largest category shown by these figures are those sentenced for up to one month. This category must include many drunkenness offenders. It is a category which included about 6,500 discharges in 1972. However, in 1971 and 1972 the figures are about the same—about 60 per cent. of the persons served over 80 per cent. of the sentence and about 40 per cent. served over 95 per cent. of the sentence.
The other category into which I have divided the figures are the remainder—those sentenced to over one month in default of payment of fine. There were about 4,000 discharges in 1972—about 50 per cent. of those served more than 50 per cent. of the sentence. Those figures carry a strong implication that these people did not have money to pay or, at least, that a great many of them did not. We are not here dealing only with drunkenness offenders. But let me first deal with drunkenness offenders. I know that the responsibility for provision of accommodation has been transferred to the Department of Health and Social Security, but the Home Office also has a responsibility and it cannot entirely wash its hands of the matter.
First, the Home Office is concerned to reduce the prison population. Secondly, Section 91 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967 said that the offence of drunk and disorderly should cease to be imprison-able when the Secretary of State was satisfied that there was sufficient suitable accommodation within the community. That puts on the Home Secretary a responsibility to press the DHSS for stronger action than hitherto. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will say what has been happening, what pressure the Home Office has exerted and when he expects to be able to activate Section 91.
However, there are not just drunkenness offenders. There are other fine defaulters. The Minister has frequently
pointed to the safeguards against the imprisonment of fine defaulters in the form of a need for investigation by the courts before such persons are sent to prison. But the Wootton Committee, which included many magistrates, said unanimously at paragraph 26 of its report:
We are not satisfied that magistrates' courts are adequately equipped to carry out the thorough investigation of means which the law requires before a fine defaulter is committed to prison. Too often the evidence available does not amount to much more than repeated failures to comply with demands for payment.
In other words, in the Committee's view, the safeguards were not adequate.
I know also, because the hon. and learned Gentleman told me in a letter, that the Home Office considers that the confidence of the courts and the general public in the fine enforcement process is an essential element in the drive towards a much wider use of non-custodial penalties. I suppose that nobody was more interested in that drive than the Wootton Committee which reported on non-custodial and semi-custodial penalties. It also wanted a wider use of such penalties. It said at paragraph 26:
We think first that non-custodial penalties should be truly non-custodial, and second that offenders upon whom a fine has been imposed should not be committed to prison if they have failed to pay that fine solely for want of means to do so.
It is precisely that, to which the Wootton Committee objected, that is happening again and again.
The Minister knows the recommendation of the minority of the Wootton Committee that imprisonment for nonpayment of fines was an anachronism that should be abolished, and its proposal that instead it should be a criminal offence for any person persistently to refuse or neglect to pay a fine when he has the means to do so. The majority of the committee dissented from that recommendation, but clearly expressed their desire to limit imprisonment to wilful defaulters. They evidently considered that further experience was necessary before methods of achieving that end were selected.
We have further evidence and experience and information now. We have had a further three years. We have the Home Office Research Unit study. Perhaps the Government are now prepared to accept the views of the Wootton minority. If they are not, they should tell us what they intend to do to ensure that people are not sent to prison in default of payment of a fine unless they are wilful defaulters.
I come finally to maintenance defaulters, another subject on which I have put Questions to the Minister. There were about 3,850 non-criminal prisoners discharged in 1972, of whom about 3,000 were committed for family maintenance. Can those figures be reduced? Imprisonment under the law is permissible only for wilful refusal or culpable neglect. The Payne Committee considered the question whether magistrates' courts can distinguish between inability to pay and wilful refusal or culpable neglect. Six members—half of the committee—considered that the magistrates' courts could not distinguish between inability and refusal to pay.
There is now considerable evidence that they were right. There is the evidence in the committee's report about the relative freedom with which magistrates' courts commit maintenance defaulters as compared with the more restricted use of commitment by other courts. There is also evidence in an article by Mr. Albert Watson in Probation for November 1972, which I hope the Minister has read. Mr. Watson's sample was admittedly small, but it brings out the type of men who go to prison as maintenance defaulters. They were ignorant of their rights. Of the 11 in the sample, three were unemployed, and only one commanded an income exceeding £18 a week. The lower the income the higher the percentage which was represented by the order payable. There was a high rate of recidivism.
Further, there is the new information with which the Home Office has provided me and which is now being published in HANSARD. I extend my thanks for the work which has been done, which is on a similar basis to the information which I asked for in respect of fine defaulters. It shows that the great majority of maintenance defaulters go to prison for between four and eight weeks. It shows that approximately 80 per cent. of them serve more than 80 per cent. of their sentence. Could we have a less satisfactory position than that? They serve their time almost in full. They do not pay and we achieve nothing. That is not surprising because from the Watson survey, and the survey conducted by Mrs. Pauline Morris, we learn that many people are going to prison through their inability to pay.
Does that help the families of these people? Mrs. Morris, in "Prisoners and their Families"—this is evidence quoted by the Payne Committee—showed that imprisonment made little difference to the income of the families. Mr. Watson found that in none of these cases did imprisonment help to get payment.
Does imprisonment deter others from becoming maintenance defaulters? There is no evidence that it does. No one on the Payne Committee thought that imprisonment should be kept to deter others. That is confirmed by experience following the abolition of imprisonment for civil debt. It is now known that the imprisonment of civil debtors was not necessary as a deterrent to others.
It is true that we want to help families, but this is not the way to do so. The hon. and learned Gentleman may have seen a book by O. R. McGregor and others entitled "Separate Spouses", in which it is said:
If a maintenance defaulter has the means to pay, the best method of ensuring that the court's order will not be flouted is to establish an effective machinery of extraction. If he lacks the means to pay, his failure cannot be contumacious.
The important point is that no one benefits from existing procedures. It is clearly time to reopen the matter and to see whether we cannot, without cost to deserted families, achieve a higher level of humanity in the handling of this subject by abandoning imprisonment for maintenance defaulters.
I have put many questions to the Minister. I am sure that he welcomes the fact that the Prison Report does not just appear but is occasionally debated in the House. I hope that he will be able to give satisfactory answers.
I am glad that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Dell) was not stuck in the lift. If that had happened we would have missed what has almost become a traditional part of the Consolidated Fund Bill debate—namely, the right hon. Gentleman raising various issues involving the Prison Report between the hours of 1.0 a.m. and 8.0 a.m., to which, for the last three years, I have had the pleasure of replying. I am sure that he and I share the disappointment that it is only at such hours and in such circumstances that we appear able to debate the reports of the Prison Department.
I am glad that we can again have this debate. Having listened throughout to the right hon. Gentleman, the overriding impression which I received was that much of his speech was of a more congratulatory nature than may have been the position in recent years. I shall do my best to answer at least some of the questions which he has asked.
I welcome the various trends which are now apparent in the most recent Prison Report of 1972. They are trends which I believe will be even more apparent when we have an opportunity to study the figures for 1973. I welcome those trends as I believe they are in accordance with the policy which the Government have been trying to pursue.
When one is looking at the 1972 Prison Report, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, perhaps the most significant and most notable fact one sees is that we have seen in the report a general downward trend in the prison population overall. I am glad to be able to tell the right hon. Gentleman that that downward trend, noticeable in the 1972 report, has not only continued but has accelerated over the last 12 months.
Whereas, during part of 1970 and part of 1971, the prison population exceeded 40,000—I remember well those days in the latter half of 1970—by 1972 the average daily population was down to 38,328, in itself a decrease of 3·5 per cent. on the 1971 figure. The average figure for 1973, which we now have, shows that it was down still further, from 38,328, markedly to 36,880. If I take the latest individual daily figure available—for 31st December 1973—and I accept that because of the sittings of the courts, it may not be completely consistent with the rest of the year—the figure was 35,010.
When one compares that figure of 35,010 with more than 40,000 in the middle and latter half of 1970, it means that we have been able to achieve a 12½ per cent. reduction in the prison population in three and a half years. That is something which, as he said, the right hon. Gentleman likes, and I also welcome it.
It is notable that that drop in the figure for 1972 over that for 1971 has occurred at a time when the rate of conviction for indictable offences has gone slightly upwards. While I have not the rate of convictions for 1973, and it is true that there are most welcome signs that the volume of crime in 1973 is down compared with 1972, nevertheless there is a more marked drop in receptions into prison and in the daily prison population.
As the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, perhaps the most significant fact is that, in 1970, 216 out of 1,000 adult males found guilty of indictable offences were sent to prison and that this dropped to 197 out of 1,000 in 1972. I think, therefore, that there is a noticeable shift away from prison as a sentence. Certainly that would be consistent with the approach which we have continually advocated from the Home Office over the last three and a half years. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I welcome that overall trend which the 1972 Prison Report shows, and which, as I say, has been continued in 1973.
That continuing fall in the prison population, as the right hon. Gentleman said, has led to an encouraging fall in the degree of overcrowding. The only figure I would cite, and which is consistent with and confirms that which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, is that there are today some 3,000 people living three in a cell, compared with some 8,000 people living three in a cell some three years ago.
Any reduction of this kind in the prison population means that in the Home Office one has been able to review the forecasts of the likely prison population in coming years. The reduction we have seen, against a predicted increase in the prison population, has undoubtedly enabled us to make a dramatic change in those forecasts. To take two most extreme situations. In 1970, shortly after this Government came to office, the forecast put to us on the rate of growth in the prison population was that we would have to estimate for a prison population in England and Wales of 56,000 by 1976 and of between 62,000 and 67,000 by the end of the decade. As a result of what happened during the last three years, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, in the most recent Government White Paper on expenditure we have managed to revise the forecast from a figure of 56,000 by 1976 to a figure of 40,900, a drop of just about 15,000. The other forecast is that by the end of the decade the prison population is unlikely to exceed 42,000, as against a previous forecast of between 62,000 and 67,000.
A turn-round of that nature in the forecasts is bound to have repercussions on the prison building programme. It is indeed a most welcome reduction. It has enabled us to review the shape and the size of the prison building programme.
Although that reduction in the forecasts has enabled us to review the shape and size of the prison building programme I would point out to the right hon. Gentleman that this Government have carried through, and are carrying through, a major prison building programme far in excess of that which was carried out by our predecessors, and a programme which is not only providing places at a substantially faster rate than that of the potential growth in the prison population but which will continue to do so despite the recently announced cuts in Government expenditure.
In the last year of the Labour Government, at a time when the prison population soared, I think I am right in saying that work was started on 80 new places within the whole of the prison world. During the last three years we have consistently been starting new places at the rate of over 2,000 a year to cope with the deplorable situation of overcrowding and neglect which we found on taking office. While we welcome the reduction in the prison population and the change in the forecast which this allowed us to make, the White Paper provides for the provision of 1,000 new prison places in the five years 1973–78 ; against an original forecast of 3,000 a year.
On the right hon. Gentleman's question about the proportion of the cuts in the Home Office capital programme relating to the prison department, I understand that there will be a reduction of £5 million in what was the anticipated capital expenditure. I cannot say what effect that will have on any particular building programme, but despite the cut we shall still be providing places at a faster rate than the potential growth in prison population and at a far faster rate than was under way when we took office.
I know that it is a matter of concern to the right hon. Gentleman that the proportion of those in prison who are unconvicted has slightly risen over the past two years. One must look at that proportional rise against the overall drop in the total number of people in prison. The number of unconvicted people in prison has remained pretty constant at about 5,000.
What is most encouraging is that the figure for receptions into prison of those who were not convicted has dropped, for untried prisoners, from 47,000 in 1971 to 44,000 in 1972 and for convicted prisoners awaiting sentence from 27,000 to 23,000. That is a marked drop for one year. However, as the right hon. Gentleman has pointed out before, in a Question, as well as tonight, the length of time spent in prison by those on remand seems to have gone up. This would seem to have been caused by the delay occasioned in trials of those in custody in 1972.
I said in answer to a recent Question that during 1973 the period spent awaiting trial from committal to trial has noticeably come down, as a result of the steps taken by the Lord Chancellor, from 8·3 weeks in 1972 to an average of under seven weeks in the last quarter of 1973. Surprisingly—and I am not yet in a position to answer the question I pose—although there has been a marked and welcome drop in the period of time between committal for trial and trial, the daily average population of unsentenced prisoners appears to have remained constant in 1973, as in 1972.
The right hon. Gentleman was good enough to refer to the various steps the Government have taken in attempting to reduce the unconvicted prison population. We have plans for further bail hostels for the out-patient provision of medical reports, and the reduction of the period of remand of those remanded for report from a normal 21 days to 14 days.
I share the right hon. Gentleman's disappointment that the out-patient facilities that we have provided for medical reports have not been more widely used by the courts. The right hon. Gentleman asked what the Home Office intended to do about it. All we can do is to provide the facilities, draw their availability to the attention of the courts and hope that they will consider them suitable for use. We cannot direct the courts to use the facilities. We can only encourage them to use them. The out-patient facilities for medical reports are available and I hope that they will be used by the courts. What is noticeable above all is that the overall percentage of people remanded on bail for trial is rising and the average percentage of those remanded in custody is coming down.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the working party's report on bail. The working party has reported and I hope that the report will be published in March of this year.
The right hon. Gentleman asked various questions about social inquiry reports. He said that he had received an answer from me today on this matter in which I said that I would write further to him. I have written, although I realise that the right hon. Gentleman may not yet have received my letter.
The right hon. Gentleman asked why the Government did not consider there was justification for implementing Section 57 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967. Briefly, the answer is that the result of the questionnaire we sent out was generally reassuring. The replies suggest that in a significant majority of cases during the period to which we referred reports were supplied. Where they were not it was most often because the courts considered that the gravity of the offence or the defendant's record made a report unnecessary. Having assessed as best I can the result of the questionnaires, I do not feel justified in urging my right hon. Friend to make rules under Section 57, because the system at present available to the courts is working reasonably well. I believe that the existing arrangements, with their flexibility, have real and desirable advantages as against any rigid imposition.
The right hon. Gentleman then turned to the question of the immigrant. It is true that the number of immigrants in prison has grown noticeably, one might say markedly, over the past two years. In 1971 there were 745 receptions. By 1972 that figure had risen to 1,161 and the daily average prison population of 110 in 1972 has risen far higher. I was told today that the figure for immigrants in prison was just over 200. The reasons lie in the greater number of people attempting to enter this country, in the numbers who are refused admission and are held pending checks being made about their suitability for admission, in those seeking to come in without proper documentation, those United Kingdom passport holders who are attempting to jump the queue, those remaining awaiting deportation, and those who have been arrested as illegal immigrants, already here.
In view of the pressures, one cannot be surprised at the increase in the immigrant prison population. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether one was justified to release a person pending a decision whether he was to be allowed to remain in the country or to enter it. I cannot, without notice, answer that point about the criteria which are applied. I will willingly write to the right hon. Gentleman if it is of assistance. The obvious answer is that by the very nature of the people concerned there must be a substantial risk of their going to ground if they are released on bail because they are subject to potential deportation or because entry is being prohibited. The basic criterion, as in any other similar application, is the question of the risk of the person disappearing.
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman not find it disturbing that he does not know the answer to the simple questions I have put on this subject and that he has to rely on these general statements, which may generally be true and which might involve injustice to individuals, which I know he would not wish to countenance?
I do not find it disturbing because a debate on the prison report covers a potentially vast range of subjects. I have done my best to be in a position to answer the likely questions to be raised. I have never been responsible for the immigration side of the Home Office and it does not come directly within my day-to-day jurisdiction. I agree that some of my answers have been of that type. Clearly the basic criterion is the substantial risk that people will disappear if allowed bail. If the criteria are more exact than that, I will do my best to supply the right hon. Gentleman with detailed information.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we were not concerned about the number of fine defaulters who were in prison. However, the number of people going to prison for the non-payment of fines has remained constant, as has the length of time for which they remain in prison. The right hon. Gentleman takes the view that it is in some way inconsistent that people fined by the courts, especially for non-imprison able offences, should eventually find themselves in prison. I take the logic of his argument. But what is the sanction available other than imprisonment for the non-payment of fines? I cannot accept the argument that prison should not be the final deterrent in these cases.
The right hon. Gentleman also said that it was very unsatisfactory that people should be sent to prison for the nonpayment of maintenance. It is unsatisfactory that people should be in prison rather than carry out their liabilities and maintain their families. However, a maintenance defaulter may be sent to prison only if the court is satisfied that his failure to pay is due to culpable neglect or wilful default. A knowledge of human nature leads to the inevitable belief that certain people will pay the maintenance ordered by a court only under the threat of imprisonment if they choose to evade payment.
I am aware that I have not answered all the right hon. Gentleman's points. I conclude by saying that, like him, I welcome the indications of a reduction in the overall prison population shown by the 1972 Report of the Prison Department. The trend will be seen in the 1973 report to have continued and to have accelerated. This is encouraging evidence that that for which the Home Office has been striving is being achieved. More and more we look upon prison as the final means of dealing with those who offend against the law. Wherever possible and wherever appropriate for the safety of the public and the punishment of the individual, we believe that we should deal with people outside prison rather than by custodial sentences.