My Lords, I start by confessing that my experience of prisons is pretty limited. I was briefly responsible—for a couple of years—for the Army detention centre at Colchester, but most of my relevant experience was under the direction of my noble friend Lord Fowler, to whom, naturally, I add my thanks for this debate. While I served as a junior Minister in the DHSS under his guidance, special hospitals were part of my responsibility and I remember visiting them on a number of occasions, including, if I may say so to my noble friend Lord Forsyth, one in Scotland at a place called Carstairs, which was also a special hospital at that time.
I will focus on a particular issue, namely the way in which we treat older prisoners. By that I mean those of, say, 80 years of age or more, although there is room for more than one view as to what the precise age should be. For example, I understand that in Italy nobody goes to prison over the age of 70 years, and I dare say there are similar age limits in other European countries.
My interest in this matter was roused by a case before one of the county courts, as I recall, about a year ago now, when a man in his late 80s was ostensibly convicted of leaving his shotgun in public view on the back seat of his car and was sentenced to a term in prison. I say “ostensibly convicted” because it turned out that the judge had got both the sentence and the law wrong, and the prisoner was, correctly, released very quickly. We are sometimes told that we ought not to criticise the judiciary. I do not do so on this occasion, because there may have been considerations of which I am unaware, which did not seem obvious from the reports that I read.
In June last year, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Mr Nigel Newcomen, delivered an important address on this matter. He of course draws on extensive knowledge and experience. Apparently, those aged over 60 are now the fastest growing segment of the prison population. The recent flurry of prosecutions for historic sex offences is no doubt one of the causes, but longer sentences also contribute. Thus it is, presumably, that increasing numbers of prisoners die from natural causes while in prison. Mr Newcomen refers to a number of cases in his lecture. He refers, for example, to one prisoner in his 94th year, who was removed from a care home to serve his first prison sentence for a historic sex offence and died a few weeks later after falling out of bed in his cell. In his lecture Mr Newcomen makes four recommendations for improving the arrangements for so-called geriatric prisoners. The Minister will no doubt be familiar with them; I should be glad to know which of them are now being implemented.
I am also concerned about the excessive use of restraints on older prisoners who in reality present little or no risk of escape. I have seen reference to one particularly shameful case where an elderly man in the last hours of life was eventually allowed to go to hospital and his restraint was only finally removed after he had died. That case was also referred to by Mr Newcomen. Can the Minister also say what arrangements are available for prisoners with serious medical problems; for example, double incontinence? Again, there are some quite shocking cases of the prison authorities simply ignoring these problems, which is quite unacceptable.
I also draw the Minister’s attention to a recent letter in a publication called Inside Time, which I understand circulates among the prison population, which relates to the treatment of an 83 year-old prisoner who had serious medical problems. Another prisoner was appointed to look after him, which raised serious question about access to his medication and other related matters. If the account set out in that particular published letter is accurate, we will need better and fuller particulars and an explanation.
Our present policy in respect of older prisoners is wholly unsatisfactory. Prisons, almost by definition, are designed to hold younger, comparatively fit people, and if there are no proper arrangements for holding much older prisoners, they should be released on licence or some other solution found. No doubt there are one or two who, given the gravity and may be comparative recency of their offence, need to be kept inside, but that does not apply to the majority.
Before I sit down, I will refer to a slightly different matter, namely the arrangements for the imprisonment of younger women who may have small children. There are now some improved sentencing guidelines on this matter, which I hope the Minister will be able to refer to and confirm. We are a civilised and compassionate nation, and our present policies should reflect those qualities.