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 Mark Carlisle Mr Mark Carlisle , Runcorn 12:00 am, 16th January 1974

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.