My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I declare an interest as a past member of the board of visitors of a young offenders institution.
The Question was as follows:
To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the new prisons which are being built will have facilities for disabled prisoners, staff, visitors and volunteers; and what plans they have to adapt existing prisons to provide these facilities.
My Lords, new houseblocks in both Prison Service-managed and contracted-out prisons are designed to be fully accessible to wheelchair users at ground floor level. Other appropriate facilities are also provided. The Prison Service has produced a draft design guide to reflect the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. A needs assessment is being undertaken, which will benefit all those with a disability.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. However, many facilities in our prisons are upstairs, and it is hugely difficult for severely disabled people to be integrated into prison life. Such people suffer extra discrimination.
Are prison officers covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995? How does human rights legislation relate to prisons?
My Lords, there are, of course, problems above ground floor level. As I said, a needs assessment is due to be completed within 12 months. That will form the basis of Prison Service strategy planning for all existing accommodation. As I suggested in my Answer, problems for disabled people must be taken into account in tenders for new prisons—contracted-out or in the Prison Service.
Prison officers are not included in the DDA. We take their position into account when preparing employment policies. It would take some time to give a complete summary of how the Human Rights Act 1998 applies to prisons. I shall write to the noble Baroness about that.
My Lords, does my noble and learned friend accept that, where possible, it is better to treat non-violent offenders in the community rather than sending them to prison? Should that not apply especially to disabled prisoners who, as the noble Baroness has already pointed out, are unlikely to receive decent treatment that will help them to avoid further expenses? If my noble and learned friend agrees with that comment, will he do what he can to encourage sentencers to take disability into account, in particular when a disabled person is found guilty of a non-violent offence?
My Lords, in a joint Statement made last week, my right honourable friends the Lord Chancellor and the Home Secretary made it clear that, with regard to non-serious crimes not involving violence or sexual assault, sentencers should consider whether prison will do any good in such cases. Evidence would suggest that short prison sentences imposed in cases where neither violence nor sexual assault is involved rarely do any good. Sentencers need to think about that much more.
My Lords, first, given the overcrowded conditions in our existing prisons, are there sufficient cells available which can be quickly adapted for prisoners afflicted by blindness or deafness? Secondly, are the relevant doorways wide enough for wheelchairs?
My Lords, the position is mixed throughout the prison estate. At any one time something under or up to 1 per cent of the prison population is disabled in one way or another, including physical disablement and sight impairment, to which the noble Lord referred. As I have said, at present sufficient space is available to deal with those prisoners, but it varies from place to place. I cannot give the noble Lord an assurance that in every case doors will be wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs, nor can I say whether in every establishment there will be sufficient facilities for the sight impaired.
My Lords, while welcoming the tone of his original Answer, does the Minister agree that it is extremely important for disabled family members, visitors and friends to know exactly what facilities are available during what will be a stressful time if they are visiting from outside? Do individual prison establishments produce in an accessible format a clear, one-page guide on what is available? If they do not, would the noble and learned Lord support that proposal?
My Lords, I agree that it is important for people to know exactly what facilities are available in each prison establishment and that family members in particular should be aware of the relevant facilities if a disabled relative is to visit a prison. I do not know the answer to the question put to me by the noble Baroness. I shall look into the matter and write to her.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is vitally important that the recommendations of the DDA are implemented with regard to support staff brought in from outside the Prison Service; that is, those working in prison education? I should also mention prison visitors, as referred to in the original Question. Will the Minister give an undertaking to ensure that, under the recommendations of the DDA, or at least its equivalent, such people will be provided with access to the entire prison system?
My Lords, I think that, in relation to the provision of services for people inside prisons, whether for prison staff or for prisoners themselves—in so far as those services are provided by outside agencies—then the equivalent standards of the DDA should apply.
My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that the best way to guarantee that disabled prisoners do not suffer discrimination would be to extend Part 3 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995? However, some six months ago the Minister for Disabled People told me that she did not know when the provisions would be implemented, despite a clear commitment made by the Government. Will my noble and learned friend take this opportunity to tell the House by what date the extension of those provisions will be made?
My Lords, I cannot do so at the moment. Perhaps I may write to my noble friend.
My Lords, while I appreciate that the Government are committed to trying to improve conditions for prisoners, is the noble and learned Lord aware that at the moment many valuable prison health education programmes are being cut? I speak as a former worker in a young offenders' institution.
My Lords, in looking at the needs of prisoners, one must bear in mind the kinds of health education programmes that will be of help to them when they get out. That in turn helps the wider community because such education helps to reduce reoffending. I am not aware of the particular programmes to which the noble Baroness has referred, but I thoroughly endorse the sentiment that such education helps the community as a whole.
My Lords, the fact that a needs assessment is presently being undertaken and is due to report in 12 months' time marks an important step towards people becoming more aware of disability issues in the context of prisons.