My right hon. and learned Friend met members of the Prison Officers Association on 18 December. The terms and conditions of service for prison officers, resources, the possibility of agency status for the prison service and the possible use of the private sector to escort prisoners and to run remand centres were discussed.
I note the Minister's reply. Is he aware that Fresh Start, which has been working in the penal system for some time, is coming under increasing criticism not only from the Prison Officers Association but from prison governors because it has not resulted, as we and they were led to believe that it would, in extra staffing? If it is the policy of the Home Office to get inmates out of their cells—many of them are banged up for 20 hours or more a day—into work projects and into association, how will that be done without extra staffing?
I hesitate to take issue with the hon. Gentleman because I know of his close interest in prison work, but over the past two years there has been a net increase in prison officer staff of almost 2,500. That is entirely consistent with the Government's commitments under Fresh Start. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will let me have further details of his comments so that we may try to remove the difference between us.
Has my hon. and learned Friend had representations from the Prison Officers Association about the delays in processing applications to purchase homes from prison officers in service? Is he aware that for three years I have had lengthy correspondence with his Department about the matter? Prison officers in Shrewsbury have asked me now to refer it to the parliamentary ombudsman because of the disgraceful delays in his Department.
Does the Minister agree with the premise of the Justice report, in the name of Lady Ralphs, that prison should be a penalty of last resort? In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the guideline sentences from the Court of Appeal and their failure to deal with the problem of disparity of sentencing and overlong sentences, will the Minister and the Government, in the forthcoming White Paper, consider favourably the Justice proposal for a sentencing council and the introduction of sentencing guidelines?
It is common ground that prison should be a sentence of last resort. I think that the hon. Gentleman will find a great deal to his satisfaction on that in the forthcoming White Paper. He may be interested to know that the answer to a question, which unfortunately has been unstarred but would have been due for an answer this session, reveals that the proportion of prisoners who have been sentenced for what we all regard as the most serious offences—crimes of violence, sex crimes and so on—is 50 per cent. as against 33 per cent. in 1979, suggesting that we are making progress in our legitimate ambition to ensure that prison sentences are reserved for those who commit the most heinous crimes.