Prison Service

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:11 pm on 16th October 1995.

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Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department 4:11 pm, 16th October 1995

I shall deal with the points made by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) in turn. He began and ended with my position. I refer him to the covering letter which is published with the report. That sets out very clearly the steps which Sir John Learmont took to send what are known as "Salmon letters" to those whom he considered subject to criticism. In that letter he states: I have applied a liberal interpretation of these rules lo ensure, as far as possible, that absolute fairness has prevailed. Such procedures have touched as high as Prisons Board level illustrating that I have endeavoured to identify where responsibilities have ultimately reached and where the criticism stops. That is the answer to the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

I reject absolutely the hon. Gentleman's allegations of interference. It is essential, if I am to be properly accountable to this House and to the country, that I am properly and fully informed about what happens in our prisons. That is why requests are made to those who work in the prison service for information about matters that give rise to public concern. If we did not ask for information about those matters, I believe that we would be in dereliction of our duty.

As for ministerial initiatives, there have indeed been some ministerial initiatives affecting our prisons over the past year or two—initiatives to introduce mandatory drug testing, to introduce a regime of sanctions and incentives and to reduce significantly the number of home leaves and temporary releases, as a result of which there has been an 80 per cent. reduction in home leave failures. I make no apology for those ministerial initiatives; they were absolutely essential if we were to make our prison system the kind of system in which the people of this country could have confidence.

The hon. Gentleman referred to paperwork and the documents with which those in the prison service had to deal. The report deals with that. When the hon. Gentleman has had greater opportunity to study the report, I think that he will appreciate that it is quite wrong to suggest that that paperwork emanated from Ministers.

I made it clear when I made my previous statement to the House that what I said about the position of the former governor of Parkhurst was pending the results of any inquiry. If the hon. Gentleman looks at what the report says about the condition of Parkhurst and reads what is said about the failure to follow basic security procedures, the prevalence of drugs and the failure to supervise properly health care at Parkhurst, he will find that it is difficult to dissociate those criticisms from the position of the former governor of Parkhurst.

The picture of privatisation that the hon. Gentleman has given the House is a gross distortion of what is contained in the report. I refer the House to paragraph 3.137, which states: Potential involvement of the private sector and the prospect of competition promotes internal re-examination. It stimulates the adoption of modern best practice and business methods. Experience has also shown that competition is likely to cut the cost of services and increase their efficiency. That is what the report says about privatisation.

The hon. Gentleman was quite right to remind the House of the disclaimer that I made when I was last dealing with geophones to the effect that I have no expertise in geophones and that I was telling the House honestly and to the best of my ability what I knew about them then on the basis of my understanding. It is perfectly true that the Learmont report adds considerably to my understanding of geophones and probably to the understanding of many others as well.

I very much regret the step that I have had to take today. The former Director General of the Prison Service has achieved a good deal. It was with great sadness that I was obliged to take the step that I did, but I could not overlook the criticisms contained in the report—I had a duty to act on behalf of the public.