Prisoners (Non-violent Crimes)

Oral Answers to Questions — Home Department – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st April 1988.

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Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo , South Suffolk 12:00 am, 21st April 1988

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many prisoners are currently serving custodial sentences for crimes not involving violence.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo , South Suffolk

Does my right hon. Friend agree that his answer shows that we are cluttering up our prisons with far too many people for whom non-custodial sentences would be appropriate? Does that not make it more difficult to ensure that the public are protected from those dangerous and violent criminals for whom sentences all too often seem to be far too short? Therefore, will he try to make a further attempt to introduce some common sense into sentencing policy?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Witney

Yes, Sir. Of the 50,000 people in prison at the moment, about 10,000 are awaiting trial, 22,000—on whom I have just reported to my hon. Friend—have committed non-violent offences, and about 18,000 have committed violent offences. I think we all agree that those in prison for violent offences not only should be there but in some cases should be there for longer than they are. We should like to reduce the numbers on remand. As regards the 22,000 in prison for non-violent offences, we want to see a wider choice for the courts. It is for the courts to decide, but for such offenders we want a wider choice of punishment outside prison in cases where the courts think that they are suitable.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz , Leicester East

Is the Home Secretary aware that on 10 April 1988 the board of visitors of Welford road prison, Leicester, published a report that was highly critical of the Home Office, and that the chairman of the board, Mr. Dennis Rice, said that Welford road prison remains afloat with a combination of miracle and luck? Is he also aware that the prison was built for 200 inmates but that it now houses, on average, 411 inmates per day? What steps does the Home Secretary propose to take to ease the crisis in the prison service in Leicester, rather than the cosmetic steps that he announced to the House on 30 March this year?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Witney

Because of our policy of open government, the reports of boards of visitors at particular prisons, which had not been published before, are now made available to the public. I am perfectly well aware that boards of visitors at many of our overcrowded local prisons are critical of the conditions that they find. They add strength to my elbow in pressing for and achieving the acceleration of the prison building programme which I announced just before Easter, which, undoubtedly, together with the other measures that are in hand, will help to relieve the pressure of which the hon. Gentleman complains.

Photo of Mrs Virginia Bottomley Mrs Virginia Bottomley , South West Surrey

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his figures show that almost nine out of 10 14-year-olds serving detention centre orders have not committed crimes of violence? Does that not further underline the absurdity of maintaining penal custody as an option for children of that age?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Witney

My hon. Friend, whose interest in this matter I know, will welcome the fact that the number of juveniles sentenced to detention or youth custody dropped sharply from 7,700 in 1981 to 4,400 in 1986. The use of that power by the courts has been dropping, and that is quite right. Equally, there are occasions when young people, even boys of 14, commit crimes of such brutal violence, or other serious crimes, that the courts, whose decision it is, decide to send them to prison. There is an eloquent letter by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten) in The Times on that subject today.

Photo of Mrs Ann Taylor Mrs Ann Taylor , Dewsbury

If the Minister is serious about wanting to keep more non-violent offenders out of prison, why is there so much emphasis, in all the rhetoric coming from himself and his Government colleagues, on the punishment of offenders? When will the Government realise that the only way to deal with overcrowding in our prisons and the rates of reoffending is to break the cycle of crime by keeping people out of prison unless they are a real danger to society?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Witney

The hon. Lady's question illustrates the basic weakness in the Labour party's approach to the matter. There is a strong human instinct, which Labour Members had better recognise, that when people have offended by doing harm or damage, or by effecting brutality on other people, they should be "punished". That is the word that they use. [Interruption.] That is what the hon. Lady is complaining about, unless there was a slip of the tongue. I am saying that for non-violent offenders I want to create for the courts a range of punishments, not all of which will involve imprisonment.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key , Salisbury

My right hon. Friend will know that those who commence their sentences at Rollestone temporary prison camp on Salisbury plain are mostly category C prisoners. Will he undertake to give special attention to monitoring the scheme, which will involve the use of a Home Office prison governor, but with custody being in the hands of the military—all three forces—to ensure that that management system works effectively?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Witney

I think that it will, and I am grateful for my hon. Friend's interest. As he knows, the Rollestone camp will reopen fairly soon until late autumn. I am confident that the mixture of a prison governor responsible to me, and, this time, with some help from the Army, will be as fruitful as it was in 1981.