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

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.