Orders of the Day — Prisons

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th January 1974.

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Photo of Mr Edmund Dell Mr Edmund Dell , Birkenhead 12:00 am, 16th January 1974

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.