Prisons: Overcrowding - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:02 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench 12:02 pm, 7th September 2017

My Lords, I salute my noble and learned friend Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood for tabling this important debate, on an issue that has bedevilled the conduct of imprisonment for far too long. Time allows me to mention only two possible ameliorations, neither of them new, of which I hope the Minister will take note.

Giving evidence to my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf’s masterly inquiry into the riots in Strangeways and other prisons in 1990, the then Director-General of the Prison Service, Mr Train, justifying his contention that:

“for improvement to be solid and service-wide, the canker of overcrowding must be rooted out”,

said that,

“the life and work of the Prison Service have, for the last 20 years, been distorted by the problems of overcrowding. That single factor has dominated prisoners’ lives, it has produced often intolerable pressure on the staff, and as a consequence it has soured industrial relations. It has skewed managerial effort and it has diverted it away from positive developments. The removal of over-crowding is … an indispensable pre-condition of sustained and universal improvement in prison conditions”.

My noble and learned friend recommended a new prison rule that no establishment should be allowed to hold more than 3% of its certified level of accommodation for longer than three months without the permission of the Secretary of State, about which he had to inform Parliament. The then Home Secretary, now the noble Lord, Lord Baker, followed the inquiry with a White Paper containing 12 priorities for the way ahead for the Prison Service, including to end overcrowding. Sadly, none has yet been implemented by any successor Secretary of State, nor has the proposed Prison Rule.

My second point involves cell certification, for which, under the Prison Commission, inspectors were responsible, but which the Home Office brought in-house when it took over the running of prisons in 1963. As Chief Inspector, I felt it quite wrong that the Prison Service should be both judge and jury on how many prisoners might be held in each cell. I agitated that I should be made responsible for advising the Secretary of State on when overcrowding had become so bad in a particular prison that further intakes of prisoners should be forbidden—my request was refused.

Of course, ministerial and parliamentary oversight of the numbers, and cell certification by the Inspectorate, will not by themselves, root out the canker of overcrowding. But if the Prison Service’s distortion of its role is to be rooted out, Ministers and officials must stop ignoring, and start listening, to the clarion calls of those who, for years, have been drawing their attention to the damage that overcrowding does to a system for which they are responsible and accountable to the public.