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Volume 888: debated on Friday 21 March 1975

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1.28 p.m.

I beg to move,

That this House, noting with concern the large numbers of citizens sent to prison who could more effectively and appropriately be treated in other environments, invites Her Majesty's Government to develop alternative forms of treatment for offenders and, in particular, urges a review of sentencing policy on women convicted of child stealing and on habitual drunken offenders.
I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to introduce this debate. For reasons with which you will be familiar, I had come to the conclusion in the last two months that Friday was not my lucky day. I am, therefore, grateful that we have reached this debate so early in the afternoon. I hope that this winning trend will continue beyond 4 o'clock.

Since the war the prison population has risen threefold or fourfold. In the last two or three years it has shown a very encouraging modest reduction, but it nevertheless remains obviously true that there are far more people in our prisons than the prisons were built to accommodate.

The Home Office has recognised this fact in the past five years, and we have embarked upon a new building programme. In one sense, this is welcome. If we are to have prisons, and if we are to have people in them, it is in everybody's interest that the prisons should be reasonably modern and secure and should have modern amenities.

However, at the beginning of the debate it is right to strike a note of caution about a new prison building programme. First, we do not know what the response of the courts will be to this development. Might there not be a Parkinson's Law by which prisons will always have sent to them a sufficient number of prisoners to keep them permanently overcrowded, however large the capacity? Is there not a danger that courts might even award longer terms of imprisonment? Is there not a danger that in creating more large prisons, containing over 800, we might be breeding further problems of size?

Moreover, the constraint that we face in considering modern developments and better treatment of offenders within prisons is not so much building as the lack of adequate trained and dedicated staff. This is a problem which will be with us no matter how many prisons we provide. We are faced with a chronic situation which has been growing in the last 20 or 30 years and which cannot be resolved merely by providing adequate capacity in the prisons. That alone should surely make us question whether many prisoners really require to be there, and whether there is not a better, cheaper and more effective way of dealing with them. My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury in the last debate invited the House to suggest ways in which Government expenditure could be reduced, and there is no doubt that keeping offenders in prison is a preposterously expensive way of dealing with them. There are many other ways of dealing with them which are far cheaper and yet which, so far as we are aware, have just as low a rate of recidivism.

What is the function of a prison sentence? What is the purpose in maintaining such a large proportion of our community in prison? If anybody should choose to defend prison sentencing on grounds of retribution it would be difficult to argue with him, although even then I would invite hon. Members to have some regard to the appropriate tariff scale of punishment. May I illustrate what I mean by referring to women offenders. One-fifth of women who end up in prison are there on a shoplifting offence. The vast majority—something like 80 per cent. —of shoplifting offences involve amounts generally less than £5. Yet a proportion of these women offenders are in prison.

One is moved to ask—even if justice had anything to do with retribution—how just is it to imprison a woman even for a few months for such a trifling sum? Society would have to be very obsessional indeed to regard such a prison sentence as justified purely in terms of retribution, since the cost of keeping a woman in prison for only one week is almost certainly to be at least 10 times the sum involved in the charge. Even if a defence of the system is made on grounds of retribution one can observe the tariff scale and say that there is adequate ground for criticising many of the prison sentences which have been passed.

I do not imagine that many Members wish to defend the present institution of prison by reference to retribution. I would imagine that most of them would argue for a sentencing policy based on deterrence and on rehabilitation. But it is difficult to produce any conclusive evidence that prison has a deterrent or rehabilitative effect which is more effective than other available kinds of treatment. Prisons have just as high a recidivism rate as any other form of treatment in the community.

To start with first principles, it seems unlikely that we can turn an offender into a well-balanced and integrated member of the community by isolating him from it and putting him in a situation where there is useful employment, where there is no stabilising family contact, where there is no opportunity for community service and involvement and where he has the company of nobody else but offenders. I know that other hon. Members who hope to speak in this debate will wish to expand on these general arguments.

I wish to press on to the two specific cases mentioned in my motion—women child snatchers and habitual drunken offenders. Before referring to either of these two groups, I wish to say that, although the numbers of these two groups in prison are small, the points that one can make about them have a wider application than can be made merely about those offences. For example, what one might wish to say, about the treatment of the drunken offender can be said with equal validity about other cases where we are dealing not so much with crime as with social problems—drug addicts, charges brought against vagrants, with which I am particularly concerned as I represent an area with a number of lodging houses, and charges brought under the Street Offences Act. There is a recent report of a working party set up by the Home Office on these latter charges, but we have yet to see any movement by the Home Department. To question the way in which the law treats women guilty of child snatching is to call into question the way in which the law treats all women offenders. What can be said about prison can be said with greater force where a woman is the offender. To look no further than the fact that women are the linchpin, the key, to the home, when we imprison women we are taking them out of the family situation, and that often has a much more disastrous effect on the family than does the removal of the man. A study was carried out in 1965 of 500 women admitted to prison in Britain, and it was discovered that between them they had 1,000 dependent children. Of those 1,000 dependent children, about half had to be taken into the care of the local authority or into the care of relatives and friends of the offender.

Of course, society cannot ignore the offences of women. It cannot overlook the fact that a woman has committed an offence simply because she has a family role to play. But it is absurdly myopic to overlook the fact that we may well be contributing to a new generation of children being reared in broken homes in difficult circumstances, who themselves are likely to turn to crime and become involved in the sort of social problems with which we are attempting to deal.

I quote from a document produced by the Prison Department in 1970, about the treatment of women and girls in custody:
" It may well be said that as the end of the centure draws nearer, penological progress will result in even fewer or no women at all being given prison sentences. Other forms of penalty will be devised which will reduce the number of women necessarily taken from their homes, which so often ends in permanent disaster and breakdown in family life."
One cannot but ask: if the result of taking a woman out of family life is so disastrous and produces permanent family breakdown as well as problems for the next generation, why are we postponing the development of alternatives until the end of the century? Why are we building a new Holloway with an even greater capacity than the present one?

I want to consider one group which, whether the new Holloway is built or not, ought not to be inside it. I refer to women convicted for stealing young children. There have been a number of well-publicised cases of this offence in the last four years. Many of these cases have arounsed considerable public concern. The most notable was the case of Jacqueline Paddon, in 1971, who ran off with a baby for 15 minutes and was found at the end of that period at the place where the mother had been walking with the baby, and yet she was sentenced to prison for two years. That case, and others like it, aroused very strong feelings among the public, but we have still seen very little change in the sentencing policy.

Last autumn a woman was charged with such an offence, and her defence was that she was so lonely that she carried a doll for which she bought nappies and clothes. She, too, was sent to prison for two years. Two years ago we had the case of Paulette Whitfield, who was sent down for 21 months, a case which aroused much public concern and produced an Early-Day Motion which was signed by 93 Members. These are heavy sentences which would normally have been imposed only for offences of very great gravity. It puts the matter into perspective when I say that two years is the maximum sentence which can be imposed for "unlawfully treating a child in a manner which is likely to cause unnecessary suffering." Moreover, most of those convicted of this offence get less than the maximum sentence.

One is moved to ask, therefore, even if the House wished to defend such sentencing on grounds of retribution, how just it is that a disturbed woman who has taken a child for a few hours, or even, as in Paulette Whitfield's case, two days, should receive a sentence heavier than that imposed on a man who has followed a systematic course of child battery.

It is hard to imagine what purpose can be thought to be served by such sentences. Pretty well all the women charged and brought before the court for this offence are disturbed in one way or another. Dr. D'Orban, the medical adviser to Holloway Prison, has made a study of this matter. In 13 cases which he wrote up, he found in the vast majority evidence of considerable disturbance. Another significant feature is that there is a repeated history among the women charged with this offence of a recent miscarriage or phantom pregnancy, with the offence taking place during the period of emotional distress following that incident.

A prison sentence in no way assists these women to come to terms with their psychiatric or emotional problems. It in no way helps them to adjust to normal life in the community, which should be the proper concern of our society. On the contrary, a prison sentence may well retard that very development and retard the woman's adjustment to normal life. For instance, can it be said that we have assisted Paulette Whitfield or her husband to come to terms with life after the trauma which they have undergone in the past three months by separating them forcibly for two years?

It may be argued by some that it is possible in the prison environment to provide proper treatment for disturbance of this kind. Nevertheless we know that such treatment as has been provided has been rudimentary, to say the least. For example, in the case of Pauline Jones, who was inside some two years ago, we know that during her time in prison the only treatment she received was for defective hearing and defective eyesight, and there was little or no attempt to deal with her great emotional problems.

The suffering which such sentences impose upon the offender might be comprehensible and justified if it could he shown that they prevent suffering among innocent parents by deterring other possible offenders. That might be comprehensible, but there has, in fact, been no evidence to show that it is so. On the contrary, the criminal statistics show that offences of this kind have actually increased. In 1972 we had the well-publicised case of Jacqueline Paddon and similar publicity surrounding the case of Pauline Jones, but in 1973, the immediately subsequent year, there was the biggest ever increase in this type of offence. Moreover, this offence is now running at double the level of 1971.

One cannot but be struck by the though that, far from deterring further offences, the heavy prison sentences and the wide publicity accompanying them have encouraged the commission of offences of this nature.

Fortunately, all the points which I have made have been recognised by a number of judges. It would be wrong to suggest that every woman convicted on this charge is sent to prison for 18, 21 or 24 months. On the contrary, some are being dealt with in a far more enlightened fashion. Two months ago there was the case of Mrs. Clodagh Dean, very similar to the case of Paulette Whitfield. In both cases the woman thought she was pregnant, but it turned out that she was mistaken. In both cases the woman was unable to come to terms with that realisation. In both cases she carried through the deception of a real pregnancy, and in both cases, at the end of the supposed pregnancy, she produced a child by snatching it from elsewhere. Paulette Whitfield was sentenced to 21 months. Mrs. Clodagh Dean was put on probation.

One is immensely relieved at the way in which Mrs. Dean was treated. One is immensely relieved to know that the judge in her case had the good sense and insight not to impose a prison sentence. Nevertheless the fact that there is this wide discrepancy in sentencing policy only sharpens the injustice to those who are sent to prison.

I recognise that Home Office Ministers cannot compel a consistent or uniform sentencing policy on the judiciary, but I think I am right in saying that the Lord Chancellor has the power to issue guidelines on sentencing policy to the judiciary. I cannot help thinking that it is high time that some guidelines were issued in respect of this specific offence suggesting that custodial sentences are inappropriate and that, in the great majority of cases, probation would be a better way to treat the offender and a better way to help her to adjust to the emotional problems which produced the offence.

I suggest that with some confidence be cause I come from a country where we have not imprisoned any woman for this offence during the past five years. A number of women have been charged, but I understand that in every case they were dealt with by probation.

However, I do not wish to seem smug in defending Scotland's record in that respect because I have to turn now to the other type of offence to which I wish to refer, in respect of which, unhappily Scotland leads the world. I refer to the habitual drunken offender. If I say a few words here about the situation in Scotland, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will bear with me. I apreciate that he has no ministerial responsibility north of the Border, but I am sure that he will wish to draw what I say to the attention of his hon. Friends at the Scottish Office.

In Scotland in 1973, the last year for which we have figures, 16,000 charges were brought for the offence of being drunk and disorderly. That is a very large number compared with the total of 99,000 such charges in the whole of England and Wales. Moreover it has to be remembered that in Scotland many offences of drunkenness or offences primarily connected with drink are charged as offences of breach of the peace. Thus, if we accept some of the work which has been done in breaking down these figures, we come to the disturbing total of about 45,000 charges in Scotland in one year for offences primarily related to drunkenness, and that has to be compared with a total of 99,000 in England and Wales.

In short, the alarming picture is that Scotland's one-tenth of the population of England and Wales accounts for one-quarter of all the offences relating to drunkenness in the whole of the United Kingdom.

What is more, that startling and disturbing contrast does not take into account the major contribution by Scots to offences of drunkenness in England and Wales. Indeed, as my hon. Friend knows from the Report of the Home Office Working Party on Habitual Drunken Offenders—that is, relating to England and Wales—a clear majority of all the cases of drunkenness brought in Leeds, Manchester and London were connected with offences committed by Scotsmen or Irishmen.

I speak with some diffidence, therefore, on the English situation in this respect, partly because I am not familiar with it at first hand and partly because we have a much graver problem to deal with in Scotland. However, I think it fair to say—I am sure my hon. Friend will agree—that the report to which I have just referred, published in 1971, led to a liberalising of the attitude of the Home Office towards drunken offenders. For one thing, it conclusively established that anyone who has a history of repeated drunken offences is not a criminal, is not a mischievous person, but is sick and requires medical treatment. I quote one sentence from the report:
" Any notion that the man who is repeatedly appearing before the magistrates on a drunkenness charge is typically a casual ' roisterer ' who is mischievous rather than sick must be abandoned."
I understand that the Home Office accepted that conclusion, with the result that in the Criminal Justice Act 1972 it was provided that the Home Office should be able to order the cessation of any custodial sentence for a drunken offence once appropriate community facilities were available in the locality.

However, that conditional phrase has, I fear, turned out to be of some importance because three years later, long after the passing of that Act, only two detoxification centres have been established throughout England and Wales —one in Manchester and one in London, the latter, I believe, being only now in course of development.

The lack of alternative facilities, the lack of detoxification centres, the lack of dry hostels and the lack of facilities for treatment within the community has meant, in effect, that there has been no change in the practice of the courts since 1972.

The picture is even more grim in Scotland. We have as yet no counterpart to the report of the Working Party on Habitual Drunken Offenders. We have had no change in legislation. We have not yet had a circular on community facilities for the treatment of alcoholism, although such a circular was issued two years ago for England and Wales. Moreover, despite our grave alcoholism problem, we have at present only one detoxification centre, and that centre, only experimental, is currently coming to the end of its grant. Therefore, far from expanding the number of detoxification centres, we are about to close the only one we have.

Normally people charged with an offence of simple drunkenness will be fined. A custodial sentence will not be imposed on them. But many people go to prison for non-payment of the fine. I am fortunate that in my constituency there is an active urban aid programme the staff of which have spent much of their time working with people who have appeared before the burgh court. I am told by them that about one-tenth of all appearances before the burgh court end up with the offender being sent to prison for non-payment of a fine for simple drunkenness. Taking into account the fact that many people appear several times, the proportion of people sent to prison for non-payment of a fine may be much higher—perhaps one-quarter or one-fifth.

The matter is of acute concern to me because in my constituency I have one-third of all the lodging houses in Scotland. One thousand of my constituents live in lodging houses and they are faced with the awkward problem that if they appear before and are fined in the burgh court it is said that they have no fixed abode because they reside in lodging houses, and they are given no time to pay the fine. Therefore, they spend 30 or 40 days in prison.

In view of the insight of the 1971 report that many such people are not criminal and mischievious but are sick and require medical treatment, one is moved to ask what purpose is served by putting them in prison. What purpose is served by fining them £5 even if they can pay it? A constituent of mine has been charged 317 times in the burgh court with being drunk and disorderly. What purpose is served by bringing this woman, who is clearly alcoholic, before the court time and again on this charge when it is clear that it is having no effect and is not helping her to come to terms with her problems?

The legislation is perfectly adequate. What we require are facilities to provide alternative methods of treatment. We desperately require a major development of detoxification centres, dry hostels and community facilities, which were adequately outlined in the 1971 report. This calls for corporate action by the Government because, although such a development would save money in the Prison Department and would make savings in my hon. Friend's Department, it would place a growing burden on the Department of Health and Social Security which it could be expected to bear only if we were prepared, as we should be, to make available the necessary resources.

I conclude by reminding hon. Members that at the turn of the century the majority of people in prison were there because they were debtors. Now, only 70 years later, there is not one person in prison as a result of debt, and this reformation has been achieved with no perceptible increase in the amount of debt and bankruptcy. I suspect that, if anything, there are fewer bankrupts now than there were at the end of the last century. It seems to us preposterous that our grandfathers imprisoned people for being bankrupts and debtors. It is my hope—I am sure that time will prove me right—that 70 years from now our grandchildren will look back at our sentencing policy and the state of our prisons and regard it simply as preposterous and incomprehensible that we sent to prison people charged with certain types of offence.

1.55 p.m.

I congratulate most warmly the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) on raising this important subject and arguing his case with such persuasiveness and expertise. I do not have the expertise necessary to comment on all the subjects he raised, particularly on those of sentencing for child snatchers and alcoholism, but I endorse some of his criticisms about the arrangements for women prisoners in Holloway. One point which I am sure he knew but did not have time to mention is that well over half of the prisoners entering Holloway enter on remand only. Fewer than one in five of them receives a prison sentence. That is an extraordinary condemnation of the inflow of women prisoners to Holloway which must be urgently reviewed.

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the wide discrepancy in sentences, particularly for child snatching. Lord Gardiner recently remarked that, whereas all members of the judiciary were extraordinarly well qualified in terms of their knowledge of the law, virtually none of them had done any courses in penology, criminology or psychology. In view of this rather large lacuna in their wisdom before they started passing sentences, I hope that the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that a firm directive and guideline on sentencing should be sent to the judiciary by the Lord Chancellor will be followed up.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on one point. I understand him to say that there was pretty well no deterrent effect in a prison sentence. I believe that the dramatic fall in the rate of muggings in London—they have more than halved in the last 12 months—is directly related to the stern sentences imposed by magistrates and judges for mugging. It is also indicative that the number of hank robberies in the South of England has more than halved, again I believe partly as a result of the stern sentences which have been imposed. Therefore, although part of the fall-off is due no doubt to extra zeal and success by the police in detecting the criminals and that is far more important than anything to do with prison sentencing—I believe that the hon. Gentleman was wrong to say that there is no deterrent effect in sentencing.

We can all agree on two basic principles as regards prison sentences. One is that the main aim of the law should be to limit the purpose of imprisonment to the minmum consistent with public safety and the interests of society. Secondly, much more thought should be given to constructive treatment within the community for the majority of offenders. We do not give nearly enough thought to alternative methods to prison sentences for dealing with offenders. We do not even know what the alternative methods are, and we have not looked hard enough at what other countries do.

I very much welcome the innovation of community service orders introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 1972. This experiment appears to be a considerable success in the areas in which it has been introduced, and I hope that it will be extended. We should not be afraid or ashamed of ensuring that community service orders, particularly when they have been imposed for the more serious types of offence, involve some fairly disagreeable tasks. Contributions to youth work, and so on, are very good for certain offenders, but perhaps more disagreeable tasks, such as assisting the troops in clearing Glasgow's refuse, could quite justifiably be included in community service order sentences. We need more experiments also like the Sheffield Day Training Centre, which has had some success in dealing with the more hardened criminals.

I should also like to see in borstal sentencing arrangements a mixture of a custodial sentence and community service towards the end of custodial sentences. I spent the summer myself in a borstal—I should quickly add, as an assistant to a housemaster—and during that period I led a party of the inmates to a community project which involved clearing up after a youth festival on the Isle of Wight. There was no doubt that the inmates, who were theoretically under my control, very much enjoyed leaving the borstal and did not mind tackling community work. After their return, they felt that a few weeks outside made it easier for them to adjust to a return eventually to civilian life. Perhaps more borstal sentences might consist of a mixture of custody and community service work.

Another innovation which could profitably be studied is weekend prison sentences. There have been weekend prisons for some time now in Germany and Belgium. It must be admitted that weekend prisons do not include much of a reformative or rehabilitation element, but the advantage is that a weekend prison avoids cutting a prisoner off from his work and his family and, therefore, disrupting family life. It avoids the expense of keeping a prisoner in prison full time, which I believe now costs over.£40 a week.

This would be the ideal kind of punishment for certain types of offenders. I have read closely the full text of Sir Robert Marks' much-publicised lecture earlier this week, which contained same valid comments on the vicious nature of a very small minority of political demonstrators who deliberately organise and create appalling acts of planned violence against the police. Since the police themselves in London now have to give up their weekend leave seven weekends out of eight, it would surely do no harm if these unpleasant types of violent demonstrator had to go into a weekend prison for a few weekends when convicted of crimes of violence against the police.

When considering alternatives to prison, we should spare a thought for the long-term prisoner. I was most interested to read in the Sunday Times Magazine of 16th February a remark by Lord Hunt, who has had as much experience as any one of prison service:
"After experience of the prison service for a number of years I became convinced that it is apt to be non-productive in the long term. Long sentences create serious social problems outside and may well lead to a return to criminal behaviour. Inmates need more opportunities to show they can change."
That is a telling comment. The characters of long-term prisoners do change dramatically during their long years in prison. When one reflects that well over half the people now serving life sentences are doing so because they killed, as a result of a family tragedy, someone they once loved, it is perhaps worth thinking about better and more flexible alternatives to the parole system to ensure that this kind of offender can have some hope of being released earlier than is sometimes the case.

Mr. Justice James, who could never be accused of being soft on criminals, since he was the prosecutor of the Great Train robbers, in last year's Ridell Lecture said that the recent proposals of the Home Office Advisory Council on the Treatment of Young Offenders, which made it possible to vary the conditions under which a sentence can be served by those between 17 and 21, should be applied to all age groups. That was a sensible suggestion which could be applied to people serving long sentences. But, above all, we need to give more hope to the long-term prisoner that his sentence will be reviewed if his circumstances and character change.

We could perhaps all agree that the criminal process must seek to avoid anyone serving a prison sentence having to remain in custody longer than is necessary in the balanced interests of society and the prisoner himself. That is not happening at the moment and this debate is a good opportunity to make some suggestions by which more flexible elements can be introduced into the system. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central for having initiated the debate.

2.5 p.m.

I owe my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) an apology for having been detained outside the Chamber until half way through his speech. If I repeat anything that he has said, I apologise to him and to the House. However, having had conversations with him about this debate earlier in the week, I understand that he intended to argue the motion chiefly in terms of specific cases. He was certainly doing so when I came in. I therefore hope that I shall not be repetitive if I support him in slightly more general terms.

The general issue raised by the motion is of the utmost importance. Society in its treatment of convicted criminals has only two important legitimate interests.

The first is the protection of society, which I put very much first. That is far and away the most important thing that society has to consider. The second is the rehabilitation of the criminal. Obviously, the two considerations are connected. If society fails to rehabilitate the criminal, when he emerges from whatever treatment society has seen fit to mete out to him he is likely to be criminal again, and society will have failed in its first aim of protecting itself.

Everyone will agree, I think, that violent individuals and sex offenders have to be segregated from society, at least for some period related to the nature of their offence and the success that society has in rehabilitating them. But it is far from obvious that many other kinds of criminal benefit from being segregated, or that society benefits from their segregation. I am not an expert in these matters, but I heard it argued seriously in a BBC radio programme only a short time ago that prisons are net producers of crime, not net reducers of crime: that trying to rehabilitate a man by locking him up in prison is like trying to rehabilitate an alcoholic by locking him up in a distillery; that by sending a criminal to prison we send him to a school for crime where he will learn new criminal practices and make new criminal contacts.

It was said by the hon. Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken) that we have failed to keep up with advanced thought in these matters. That is true, or it has been true in the past. Our prison population of 30,000-odd is much larger than the prison populations of comparable countries on the Continent. But, fortunately, this subject is at last in the air, a great deal of thinking is being done about it, and a great deal of experience is being gathered in other countries. I am thinking particularly of Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries—where criminal and sentencing procedures are far in advance of ours—from which we have a great deal to learn.

Only yesterday, the Clarendon Press published a book dealing with these matters entitled "Progress in Penal Reform ", edited by Louis Blom Cooper, QC. In a review of this book in yesterday's Guardian, Baroness Wootton points out that every contributor to it dislikes our prison system as it now is. The volume therefore constitutes, she says, an anthology of informed and experienced criticism of the prison system. She concludes with the words:
"… this volume represents the most serious and well informed attack yet directed against our prison system, and should bring much nearer the day when that system will be universally regarded as an outdated version of a scene from Dickens."
If that is the view which is taken of our present system by a 77-year-old Member of the House of Lords, radically to criticise the system is scarcely to take an avant-garde attitude.

Many members of the public are too complacent in their acceptance of the assumption that to send a criminal to prison is the ónly proper thing which can be done. Many members of the public still take a crude, Old Testament, retributive view of how criminals should be treated. This is in the interests neither of society nor of the criminals in the long term.

When we send criminals to prison we are not only in danger of increasing their criminality and, therefore, the problems of society when they are released, we are also in danger of increasing short-term social problems outside prison, for in the main, prisoners are not isolated individuals. They have families. Many have wives and children whom they have had to abandon and who may be in financial straits. Often the children of such a person themselves get into trouble with the police because their father is away in prison.

Like other hon. Members, I have to become involved with the social problems of the family when one of its members goes to prison. So in counting the social cost of sending people to prison we have to think not only of the financial costs of running prisons, and the social costs of bearing the increased criminality of the people we treat: in addition, there are the social costs which have to be met outside prison.

I hope that hon. Members and the Government will pay more attention to the kind of informed thinking on this subject, published yesterday in the book to which I have referred, and to the more advanced experience on this subject of the Scandinavian countries. I hope that we shall soon catch up with these countries in our treatment of these matters.

2.13 p.m.

I follow the hon. member for Leyton (Mr. Magee) with similar apologies. I regret that I was unable to be present during most of the speech of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook). I was entertaining some Commonwealth delegates. I offer him my sincere congratulations on introducing this debate to the House. This is often a subject which receives little public sympathy and support. I was genuinely moved by the comments the hon. Member made in the latter part of his speech, which I was privileged to hear, on the problems of his constituents and the need for a radical and basic change in the philosophy behind our penal system.

There is a woeful lack of specialist means of dealing with offenders. The facilities recommended for dealing with alcoholics—the detoxification centres mentioned in the Home Office report and in pieces of legislation—have not materialised. The results are evident. The lack of facilities under the Children and Young Persons Act for children with acute behavioural problems and of facilities for women with acute psychiatric disorders are examples of the gaps in our penal system and a reflection of the fact that for too long successive Governments have not accorded this area of social responsibility the priority which it deserves.

I am desperately concerned that in this country there is a growing rate of absolute crime. What is more worrying is that there is a growing rate of recidivism in crime. This is the ultimate reflection of the complete inadequacy of institutional means of dealing with offenders. The proportion of people in prison for non-payment of fines is substantial. It is absurd that a large proportion of our prison population comprises people who have been sentenced for non-payment of fines, for having committed crimes of passion and for the sort of misdemeanours described by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central, such as drunkeness. Institutional means of dealing with offenders cannot cope with this. The quality and reformative element of those institutions is completely inadequate, and the empirical evidence is there to prove it.

I do not wish to spend too much time discussing the inadequacies of our system. They have been eloquently defined by other hon. Members. I want to look at some positive measures which can be taken to improve this deteriorating situation.

First and foremost, we must provide more money for this area. People and institutions cost money. Good facilities for reformative teaching cost money. I do not wish to make political points, but we are spending massive sums on indiscriminative food subsidies. If those sums were to be cut by £100 million or £200 million, that money could be spent on this area of tremendous need.

More recognition and financial assistance should be given to voluntary bodies. The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, which provides rehabilitation facilities and helps ex-convicts adjust to society, could be accorded further legislative recognition and monetary assistance. That body represents a multitude of voluntary bodies working effectively on a small group basis throughout society, and further Government assistance to it would be one positive way in which we can help those with individual and behavioural problems.

Second, in terms of expenditure, we must accord more priority to the building of specialist homes for the sort of categories I have described. It is completely inadequate and a disgrace to this country that we still have system of lumping together people who have committed differing offences. Should we, then, be surprised that the penal sub-culture which exists is conducive to a recidivist and escalating rate of crime?

Third, although we have seen a welcome increase in the remuneration of the probation service, I feel that we should be aiming towards doubling or tripling the numbers. At every stage we should be trying to help offenders in the community, and not in an institutional environment. I recognise that in doing so we need a tremendous increase in the number and quality of those closely involved with such persons and that the burden in terms of the load placed on their time in that capacity should be substantially lower than it is.

I believe, too, that we should widen the options open to magistrates. Historically, magistrates have been able effectively to deal with offenders, particular young offenders who have been brought before them. With an increasingly defined legislative network, which has advantages, much of the initiative and imagination allowed them in dealing with offenders, especially young offenders, has been limited. I support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken), who said that as far as possible we should widen the possibilities of community reparations for offences.

For example, if a young boy throws a brick through a glasshouse he should pay for it and replace the plate himself. That may seem a simplistic example. While I recognise that there have been advances through the Criminal Justice Act with community service orders, I endorse the comments that these should be expanded and more discretion given to magistrates in dealing with these problems.

The magistrates' complaint is that they are not allowed to send children for custodial sentences, which is against the spirit of everything said in this debate. It is not that they want to use other means of dealing with them.

I disagree. The objections made by magistrates' associations and individual magistrates who have made representations to me reflect the duties placed on them by Acts of Parliament such as the Children and Young Persons Act 1963, their inability to follow the intentions and provisions of those Acts, and especially the difficulty of finding suitable community homes when dealing with young offenders. I do not believe that magistrates are against alternative and more imaginative means of dealing with offenders if they can be shown to work and are encouraged by the community. The complaints referred to by the Minister are a reflection of magistrates' frustration at being unable to apply certain pieces of legislation, especially when placing children in community homes.

I think that my comments go a little further than those of my colleagues. This is a subject on which I feel extremely strongly. I ask for a revolution in the attitude of Parliament to the problems of our penal system. The degree of civilisation which a country attains is measured by the humanity of its penal system. I believe that the priority and public sympathy accorded in the past to this subject have been grossly inadequate. We should not, therefore, be surprised to sec the figures for growth in recidivism and crime generally which arc currently being presented.

2.22 p.m.

I join in the approval of and congratulation to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) who moved the motion.

The hon. Gentleman complained about the apparent tariff scale for women shoplifters and said that it was disproportionate to the gravity of the offence which they committed. I do not agree. The tariff for women shoplifters almost entirely avoids the custodial sentence. Women are sent to prison for shoplifting offences only when they have repeatedly failed to learn the lesson or to take advantage of the opportunities given to them during their earlier appearances before the courts. A woman shoplifter is very seldom sent to prison for shoplifting offences, for which there are frequently psychological explanations. The courts lean over backwards to avoid doing so. That has been my experience from my practice in the London criminal courts.

The hon. Gentleman said that there was no proof that prison was a deterrent. I disagree. There is no statistical proof that prison is a deterrent. It is very difficult to envisage a way in which such proof could be obtained. Perhaps a test might be made—I put this forward as a serious suggestion—for example where young persons who have been discharged from borstal or a detention centre could make statements describing their motivation following a period when they had stopped offending.

Hitherto no statistical method has been accepted as being capable of proving the deterrent effect of prison. That is not to say that proof does not exist. I have practised in the courts for 13 years. I am sure that a large number of lawyers share my experience that many offenders are frightened of going to prison and that they will do almost anything—usually demonstrated by pleading not guilty to offences which they have committed—to avoid it. Although deterrence cannot be proved by statistics, a large body of opinion of professional practitioners in the criminal courts would, I think, support the proposition that prison is a deterrent and causes fear to offenders.

I do not dissent from the suggestion that anyone faced with a prison sentence would wish to avoid it, or that those who have been through the mill will pay ample tribute to the unpleasantness of the experience. However, I invite the hon. Gentleman to address himself to the specific problem of woman child snatchers, where we have seen the onset of a modern trend towards heavy sentences and an increase in the rate of the offence. None of the women to whom I have referred would disagree with the hon. Gentleman. They would like to avoid prison sentences, which have imposed great suffering on them. However, on evidence, prison sentences do not appear to have deterred an increase in that type of offence in the past two years.

I do not think that follows. Because there have been one or two incidents recently of women child snatchers having been sent to prison, it does not necessarily follow that there has been an increasing tendency to commit such offences. I do not think that there is necessarily a cause and effect. We must look at the wider causes of stress and strain in our society. The hon. Gentleman will have great difficulty in proving a link between the sentences imposed and the incidence of the criminality which he rightly condemns.

The object of sending women child snatchers to prison is to deter them. Some people think that there is a deterrent value in sending such offenders to prison because that may deter those who are perhaps less psychologically disturbed but who might otherwise seek to take this way out of their problems. Perhaps this is a subject for the Home Office research facilities to investigate, to ascertain the motiviation and the incidence of the offence and the effect of the penalties imposed upon women child snatchers.

The hon. Gentleman made no reference to the need to protect the public. I find that disturbing because, whatever may have been the past justification for imprisonment and custodial sentences, the present dominant justification is that that is the only way in which society can be protected against the activities of repeated offenders, especially those who indulge in acts of violence.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the power of the judiciary. The Government have no powers to direct the judiciary to do anything. The nearest they come to it is that the Lord Chancellor is the supreme authority over lay magistrates. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the judiciary is aware of all the problems raised by sentencing. There are frequent conferences and seminars to consider sentencing policy. Lord Chancellors in successive Governments have called magistrates together. They have instituted training for magistrates to try to stabilise the system of sentencing by magistrates. The Lord Chief Justice has set up frequent conferences and seminars for all judges in the higher courts, so that a constant attempt might be made to look into and to discuss the results and the desirability of alternative forms of punishment.

Subject to those observations, some of which are critical of what the hon. Gentleman said, I must say that his motion is extremely good because it draws the attention of society to the fact that prison ought not to be regarded as the easy way out and that it may cause many more problems than it solves.

The motion is good, too, because it reminds the public that the prison system has a high failure rate and a high rate of recidivism. It also reminds the public of the cost of sending someone to prison. In answer to Questions of mine, the Under-Secretary of State said last month that the cost of maintaining an inmate in a borstal or young persons' centre in 1973–74 was £51 a week. In a detention centre the figure was £45. The estimated weekly cost of maintaining an adult male prisoner was £41. The average weekly cost of maintaining an inmate in a prison or borstal for women or girls was £53. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that those figures are double the estimated costs in 1970.

If the wage earner in a family is incarcerated and his wife and children then have to resort to social security, it is probable that the average cost of sending a man to prison and of supporting his family is well in excess of £100 a week. It is important that the public should realise, whatever their feelings and sentiments in relation to the prison system, that it is financially necessary to explore the alternatives to the fullest extent.

The motion is good also because it reassures the public that they are being protected and that their interests are prominently in the mind of Parliament.

The problem which the hon. Gentleman has raised is not a new one, however. For years Governments have considered ways in which they could cure the unsatisfactory nature of the penal system. I assume that the Minister of State will review the history.

One brave experiment was the introduction of suspended sentences in 1967 because it was considered that too many people were being sent to prison who might necessarily never have been sent —for first offences and matters of that kind. It was generally thought that if the sword of Damocles was suspended over their heads, that would be a sufficient deterrent for them and that in one stroke it would be possible to reduce the pressure on the prison service of having in its charge so many people who did not benefit from prison and who would not be deterred by prison. It was thought that that would release resources in the penal system for rehabilitation and allow more scope for the prison service to operate more effectively as a rehabilitative element.

The effect of that brave experiment was not entirely as had been hoped. It is doubtful whether it reduced the prison population. What happened was that people who received suspended sentences believed that they had been acquitted. In due course, when such a person came to be arrested and convicted again, the suspended sentence was put into effect and the overall sentence was longer than that which would have resulted if a prison sentence had been imposed in the first place. That has been reconsidered and the statute has been changed. I hope that the Minister will comment on the effectiveness of the change in the suspended prison sentence rules.

Then there was the experiment, which we are still undergoing, to try to encourage magistrates by statute to keep fewer people in custody who were awaiting trial. Again, I should be happy to hear what the degree of success is thought to be in granting more bail than was the case until recently.

Another brave experiment was the parole system and, linked to it, the early release scheme. That seems to have met with a measure of success. Perhaps the Minister can update the figures.

In recent years there have been determined attempts by all Governments to explore the alternatives to prison, especially by means of community service orders, which in so far as they are effective ought to be extended.

I hope that the Minister will comment on the working of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969. I am a member of the Select Committee of this House which currently is taking evidence and shortly will be drawing up its report. The concept by which that Act was introduced, to take young offenders outside the penal system and deal with them within the community on the assumption that custody was harmful to them, was highly desirable. However, the general conclusion of most hon. Members serving on that Select Committee and hearing evidence from body after body which has had to deal with the problems thrown up by the Act is, I think, that generally it is failing.

There do not seem to have been the money and resources available for the development of community centres and institutions laid down by the statute. There does not seem to have been enough prior thought given to the problems which would be caused by the implementation of the statute in an inhibitive way. There are criticisms of staffing, of social welfare workers who have not been trained in the specific tasks of looking after juvenile offenders and trying to stop them reverting to juvenile delinquency, of house mothers who are 16 or 17 years of age, with no experience or knowledge of life, let alone of how to handle small children.

There are criticisms of the community homes. When they were approved schools, headmasters were able to exert some degree of discipline over their charges. They could increase the length of time that they were in their charge. They could exercise some direct control over them, which was respected by the young residents. The situation now is that before a headmaster takes any decision he has to refer the matter to the social welfare services. By the time a young lady takes a decision about what the headmaster may or may not do, the respect—the link between the man and the boy—has gone. This is a cause of great concern to those involved with this very important unit in the overall concept of young people's rehabilitation as devised by the Children and Young Persons Act. Something should and must be done about that.

There has been criticism of borstals. It has been seen to be entirely wrong that they should have in their care children between the ages of 14 and 16. That is said to have interfered in a substantial way with the rehabilitative work which borstals have always been able to achieve with young persons from the age of 16 upwards. A strong case has been urged upon the Select Committee to take away from borstals the 14-to-16 age group and to devise some form of strengthened community homes as a way of caring for that age group.

In an intervention the Minister referred to the criticism which has been expressed by magistrates and police to the effect that the Children and Young Persons Act has no teeth. That criticism cannot be brushed aside. The police force is the unit that has to deal with the young offender. It has to decide whether to prefer charges and whether to bring young offenders before the courts in the first place. The feelings of the police are important and significant, as are the feelings of the magistrates. Something has to be done to give the Children and Young Persons Act rather more teeth than it has hitherto had.

I now suggest four general lines of approach for the Home Department in dealing with the problems raised by the motion. First, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson). It is vital that we should spend a greater degree of our national financial resources upon the penal system and upon alternatives to imprisonment. This is a difficult time to ask for more money to be spent. I am asking for a higher proportion of the national cake.

Secondly, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester in calling for a considerable strengthening of the probation service. It has had to bear the brunt of many of the reforming changes that have taken place over the past 10 years. It now has a far wider duty concerning the after-care of prisoners. The service must have better pay. It must be made more attractive to potential applicants. There must be a more attractive promotion structure.

Thirdly, I ask for a more determined effort to improve the training of those officials who have to deal with the care of young offenders. That means specifically those who were so designated under the Children and Young Persons Act. It goes wider than that if we are to have an effective rehabiliative prison service. We must offer greater incentives to psychiatrists, doctors and general welfare workers who work within the prison system.

Fourthly, I ask for something that we do not appear ever to have had—namely, a thorough review of the workings of the penal system and the alternatives to imprisonment. We do not have enough facts about the vital questions that need to be answered. We do not know statistically of the deterrent effects of the various forms of sentence. There seems to be an appalling absence of data upon which responsible bodies are drawing conclusions and upon which action is being taken. When they are asked upon what data they have come to their conclusions, it is found that the data is often insubstantial.

Everyone knows what is wrong with the penal system, everyone can pinpoint where it is breaking down and where it is weak, but we are stumbling along in trying to cure the evils of the system. We have an upsurge of lawlessness in our society. Prison is, if anything, even more important than it was five or 10 years ago as one of the institutions that deals with criminality. The prison system has to be maintained and upheld. Equally it must be humane and enlightened. We have, however, a duty as a Parliament to encourage all steps to try to find realistic alternatives. I shall listen with great interest to what the Minister has to say.

2.47 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) opened this debate with a lucid and well-argued speech. He showed from his grasp of the subject how important it is to our consideration of the penal system. He may not have been aware how pertinent and relevant this discussion is to the problems that we now face.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the level of the prison population. He pointed out that it had doubled in the past 25 years but that it had now stabilised and showed signs of decreasing. That undoubtedly was true between the middle of 1973 and the end of 1974, but there have been signs in recent months that the prison population is increasing again. There are now 38,500 men in prison and there is every sign that if present trends continue the figure will exceed 40,000. That was the position between 1971 and 1972. Such a situation is deplorable on any grounds, not least because of the enormous congestion within the existing prisons.

For that reason I welcome what my hon. Friend said in such a constructive way about the alternatives to imprisonment. Within the Department we have given close attention to what we can do to minimise the effect of the present trends upon the prison system. That was the position even before my hon. Friend's motion came to our attention. My hon. Friend referred to two areas in particular —namely, child stealing and habitual drunkenness. I shall turn to those matters in a moment, but I begin in a rather wider perspective.

The number of people in prison at any one time is something which neither Government nor Parliament can effectively control. We define the limits of the criminal law and we prescribe the maximum penalties. The number of people in prison is a reflection of the level of crime in society itself, the number of offenders who are brought to trial and convicted and the use that the courts, whose independence from the executive I need not stress, make of their sentencing powers.

The hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) drew attention to that factor in a speech that I thought was rather schizoid. He began by expressing the well-known attitudes which I share with him as as member of the same profession—namely, that imprisonment has certain desirable attributes which should be positively pursued.

The hon. Gentleman then went on, along with everybody else in the debate, to indicate the limitations of imprisonment and how we ought to seek alternatives to it. I feel that we both suffer from the attitudes in which we were trained in our profession in regarding imprisonment in this positive light. I think it must be accepted by all who look at the system that imprisonment is a negative way of dealing with the problems of criminality and that it is a punishment which is perhaps the least desirable of all the categories of punishment available to the courts.

My hon. Friend referred in a telling way to the limitation of imprisonment as a deterrent for child stealing. The hon. Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken) suggested that he might be wrong because, for instance, of the experience in relation to mugging and bank robberies. As the hon. Member for Burton said, no one can be absolutely sure about this, but I should have thought that such evidence as we have indicates that the decline in bank robberies is more to do with the level of police activity and the fact that detection is so much more of a deterrent than almost anything else.

The deterrent effect of imprisonment in mugging cases is more arguable, but in a recent study which the Home Office did on mugging in the Midlands the results indicated that the pattern of falloff had more to do with increased police activity and very little to do with a particularly heavy sentence of 20 years which was passed upon a youth and which received enormous publicity at the time but did not seem to have any particular effect upon the incidence of mugging in the area immediately thereafter.

The indications—I put it no higher than that because no one can be sure—are that imprisonment as a deterrent is not as important as the hon. Member for Burton and, I suspect, most members of our profession, think it it is, and that there are ways in which one can reduce the potential of any particular individual to commit crime by alternative sentences which ought to be tried if at all possible.

I agree that we are all on unknown ground as to what creates a deterrent—police activity or sentencing. To some extent these factors may be related. If society feels that crimes such as mugging are serious, and if the courts reflect that feeling in heavy sentences, police activity intensifies precisely because the courts are taking seriously what society thinks. All these factors are interwoven, and sentencing is an essential thread in the interweaving.

If the key factor is increased police activity, that can be dictated by factors other than the high sentence of imprisonment that might be passed in any individual case, though I accept that the police, because they are human, are likely to be influenced by heavy sentences passed in individual cases.

What we have to discover is the effect of alternative forms of sentencing. The hon. Member for Burton said that there was no means whereby we could do this now. From time to time the Advisory Council on the Penal System has advised on a number of improvements in our sentencing procedure, and I hope that this is a subject which in due course it may feel disposed to take up. It is a difficult matter to deal with because of the problems of assembling research, but it is something which would be helpful to us all.

The other question which arises is the level of the prison population. The news about this is doleful. I hope that this is only a temporary upsurge, because so much depends upon the level of sentencing. I think it is right to say that the courts have not been bad, as some people have suggested. Over the last few years since 1965, imprisonment as a punishment has fallen from about 20 per cent. to 11·7 per cent. of sentences for all indictable crimes. If that pattern was pursued the prospects for the future would be good, if there was no substantial increase in criminal activity. However, in the past year there has been an increase of about 19 per cent. in the crime rate, and this has tended to cancel the effect of this improving pattern of sentencing.

The attitude of the courts to sentencing is still extremely relevant. Some hon. Members have referred to the scheme which has been introduced for training magistrates in their duties. I see considerable merit in a scheme for training the higher judiciary in the alternative punishments that are available and the effect that they have. Already many have some experience of that. As the hon. Member for Burton said, the Lord Chief Justice's sentencing conferences have helped to spread knowledge about the effect of sentencing, but it may be that we ought to move as soon as we can towards a more formal way of training members of the Bar who are appointed to the bench in their early days and perhaps continue with some kind of in-service training. There are signs from the judiciary that such a move would not be unwelcome, because many of its members feel a need to understand more about what happens to a person after he is sentenced.

At the same time, I ought to stress that we cannot and will not take lightly the need to deal as effectively as possible with offenders of all descriptions, and for some we cannot contemplate any course except that of imprisonment, nor would society permit us to do so. We must recognise the need for relevant alternative forms of sentence, which punish the offender without causing him to lose his self-respect and his place in society, so that when his sentence is completed he has every opportunity to continue to live a normal life without resorting to further crime. Where possible, we must look for a constructive element in the sentence.

Imprisonment has allegedly one merit, that of prevention. But it is prevention only by keeping a criminal out of circulation for a limited period of time. As the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) suggested, it may be that the upshot of a period of imprisonment is that the man is trained for even greater criminal activities by the time he gets out. That is another questionable aspect of imprisonment.

There is also the question of the cost of imprisonment. The hon. Member for Burton pointed out that the cost is now £41 a week for an adult who is kept in prison. But that is only part of the total cost.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is curtailing these matters at such a rate that it is probably cheaper now.

Another aspect is the cost to the State of looking after the prisoner's wife and children while he is in prison. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central indicated the continuing cost that will fall upon the State if those children are taken into care, not only because they have been taken into care but because they may thereby be deprived in later life and become criminals, causing additional expense to society.

From every point of view it is desirable that we should see whether there are ways in which we can keep people out of prison. We have been carrying out some fairly exhaustive studies on this matter. At a recent meeting I assembled all the officials I could concerned with this matter to review every criminal offence on the calendar to see whether any could have the penalty of imprisonment removed. I hesitate to use the dreadful word "depenalise ", but that is the technical term. We have already moved a considerable way in one area. Perhaps we have done more than has been noted by the public at large.

One of the most significant areas where people could be imprisoned, and where there could be questions about the moral justification for doing so, is that of road traffic offences. The Home Office insisted that in the last Road Traffic Act, which went through the House last summer, imprisonment as a method of punishment for all those convicted in magistrates' courts should be removed. It is interesting to note that when one tries to depenalise there is always somebody who stands up for the rights of the court to send people to prison. We succumbed to the pressure to the extent that three offences remained for which a prison sentence could be imposed by magistrates.

A substantial number of sentences of imprisonment used to be imposed for driving while uninsured, for instance. That is no longer an offence for which the magistrates can send people to prison.

That will have a marked impact on the prison population, because the incidence of imprisonment for such offences was far bigger than for drunkenness or child stealing. We have, therefore, made a considerable advance here.

I am anxious that we should make an advance in many other ways. In recent years we have de-criminalised attempted suicide, and to some extent abortion and homosexuality, and we are considering the question of official secrets. Drugs are a far more controversial issue, on which there are at least two well-justified and well-argued points of view.

We are considering the position concerning drunkenness offences. My hon. Friend was anxious that we should move faster. As he said, the power already exists under the Criminal Justice Act 1972 for us to get drunks out of prison by increasing the facilities for constables to take them to detoxification centres rather than to charge them. Unfortunately, only two centres are planned, in Manchester and Birmingham. The Government are concerned about the slow progress which has been made in this area.

In London the Department of Health and Social Security is seeking the help of voluntary organisations to establish a community-based centre run in co-operation with hospitals, the police and local authorities. However, during our recent discussions I have urged that we ought to go even further. The detoxification centres will be splendidly equipped pieces of medical help for people who are suffering from alcoholism. However, it may be that we are striving for too high a standard for the kind of people who need help, so I am hopeful that we can look for somewhat cheaper and perhaps more ad hoc facilities, in areas in which there are, for instance, hostels for vagrants, where people could easily get access to some kind of drying-out techniques. We are looking at this as a matter of urgency to see whether there is anything we can do in that direction.

From the figures that were produced for me, I am bound to tell my hon. Friend that out of the total population in prisons of 38,000, as at 30th June 1973, only 53 were in prison because of drunkenness. Therefore, the impact on the size of the prison population is limited. Of course, that does not indicate the number of people who are taken into prison for drunkenness with aggravation. About 482 were sentenced to short terms of imprisonment, and 89 had a suspended sentence passed upon them. However, in terms of the bulk of the prison population, this is a small area.

The other area with which my hon. Friend dealt was child stealing, and this is an even smaller area, as he indicated. My hon. Friend was talking only about women offenders, although child stealing is an offence which can be, and is, committed by men. Even in the peak year of 1973, the number of women who were sent to prison for this offence was very small—only three out of the 12 who were convicted. Therefore, if we were talking simply about reducing the prison population we would not be doing very much by abandoning imprisonment for this offence.

However, I take my hon. Friend's point very seriously, and I realise that this is not the basis of his concern, as it is not the basis of the concern of many who have been critical of these sentences throughout the country. Their concern is that these women should never have been sent to prison at all, even if only two or three of them were imprisoned. With that view I have very considerable sympathy indeed.

It is not for me, as a Minister of the Crown, to criticise any sentence passed by the judiciary. There is a clear demarcation between our functions. But I think that I am entitled as a Member of Parliament, and as a human being, to say that it does not seem to me to be appropriate that women should be sent to prison for this offence when it is quite clear that they were seeking no pecuniary advantage by taking the child but the taking was due simply to their disturbed attitude and disturbed relationships. After the uproar that broke out following the first such case some years ago, I am surprised that judges are still sending women to prison for this offence.

I am bound to say—this is the reason why I couch my words in rather general phraseology—that I cannot address myself to the particular case to which my hon. Friend referred because it is sub judice, and it may well be that the Court of Appeal will in this particular case reduce the sentence or give some other alternative sentence. It would be helpful if the judiciary had some kind of help from the Court of Appeal on the kind of sentences which ought to be handed down in such cases. If that does not prove possible, for myself—I speak only personally here—I would very much wish that we should look at the whole question whether offences under Section 56 of the 1861 Act are the kind of offences for which a person ought to be sent to prison. However, there are difficult questions which arise from that, and the Government are by no means committed to that point of view.

Will the Minister of State consider depenalising the offence of soliciting, for which a considerable number of women are at present serving sentences in Holloway? This has been the subject of criticism by a considerable number of legal figures, including Lord Justice James in the lecture to which I referred earlier.

On 30th June 1973 there were five women serving sentences in prison for offences in relation to prostitution. In the same year 181 women were sentenced for offences of prostitution and there were 202 suspended sentences. It appears that there are a number of short sentences which do not have a great effect on the prison population.

All sex offences are under review by the Criminal Law Revision Committee. The vagrancy aspects of these offences have been the subject of the recent report by the working party at the Home Department. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central said that we had not moved on this. A working party merely makes its report for consideration by the public generally. We are awaiting reactions from the public before we make our decisions about what should be done. I assure my hon. Friend that I am anxious to move on some of those recommendations fairly quickly. Some of the recommendations bear on the point to which the hon. Member for Thanet, East referred.

Does not the Minister agree that fettering the discretion of the judiciary is self-defeating if taken to extremes and is at any rate a very dangerous and slippery slope for any Government to embark upon? Secondly, is there not some advantage to be gained from maintaining prison sentences for certain offences? This retains the facility of a suspended prison sentence which can be held over the head of the person concerned. Is there not a deterrent aspect to the suspended prison sentence?

I agree with the hon. Member's first point. That is one reason why I should be reluctant to do anything about Section 56 of the 1861 Act. I do not suggest that this is imminent. However, if the present practice, which is at variance with what the public think is right and just, were to continue, this might be a matter that we will have to consider in due course. I am anxious and hopeful that this will not arise, because I think that the judiciary may well take cognisance of the strength of public feeling on this issue.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that if we were to remove the sanction of imprisonment it might well be that the year after we did so a particularly bad case would occur for which the public felt that imprisonment was fully justified. In that sense it is undesirable to remove the power.

I think that I have covered most of the matters which were raised in the debate, with two possible exceptions. The hon. Member for Chichester raised the question of the number of people who go to prison in default of payment of fines. I am very concerned about this issue. If we can find a way of improving the machinery for enforcing payment of fines I should like to move towards it. We seem to have done almost all we can. We have attachment of earnings. There is, as the hon. Gentleman will know, a suggestion put forward by the Advisory Council on the Penal System about a day fine. The advisory council itself was sceptical about whether it could or should be used in the English system, although it is used in the Scandinavian system. It may be that the day fine would be more appropriate than our present system. Certainly it is one which we should like to consider again should the problem increase.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that at the present moment fewer than 1 per cent. of the prison population are fine defaulters but they represent about 20 per cent. of the receptions. The difference between these figures is due to the fact that so frequently when a man has failed to pay a fine, imprisonment strengthens remarkably his desire to pay and he usually pays within the first 14 days of the prison sentence. There is, therefore, something to be said for keeping the sentence of imprisonment as a back-up for the payment of fines in those cases.

I was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central about shoplifting in relation to women offenders. He suggested that the incidence of women going to prison for shoplifting was very great. In fact, in 1973 in the magistrates' courts in England and Wales 22,000 women were convicted of this offence, of whom only 181 received immediate sentences of imprisonment, and in the Crown Court 393 were found guilty, of whom only 45 received sentences of immediate imprisonment. The proportion, therefore, is extremely small.

Perhaps I did not make my meaning clear. The proportion to which I referred was not the proportion of women convicted of shoplifting but the proportion of all women going to prison. I said that a substantial number of women going to prison—about one-fifth —were convicted of shoplifting. We are talking of a significant proportion of women going to prison.

It must be obvious from those figures, as the hon. Member for Burton suggested, that the courts are reluctant to send them to prison and that they are probably sent to prison only after repeated offences. There is, indeed, the same difficulty in knowing what the alternative should be for a woman who was addicted to shoplifting. I will certainly look at the matter again to see whether there is anything that we can do about this matter.

The other worrying part of the recent rise in the prison population is that there has been a substantial increase in the number of those who have been remanded in custody. In the last year there has been an increase of about 12 per cent. The House will know that the Government are committed to introducing legislation at an early date to implement the recommendations of the report on bail procedures in magistrates' courts which came out last year. I am disappointed that we have not been able to introduce a Bill in the House before this, but I hope we shall be able to do it, if not in this Session, at least early in the next Session in order to implement those recommendations. Taken with the kind of code which will be built into the legislation, and also the other administrative procedures for getting information, I am very hopeful that we can cut down very quickly the number of people who are remanded in custody, because there is a good deal of injustice caused when people are remanded in custody for long periods and are then acquitted and apparently have served a prison sentence when the court has recorded that they committed no offence. It is desirable for that and for many other reasons that we ought to cut down the number of remands in custody.

Would the hon. Gentleman touch on the point which I raised about the contribution of voluntary associations and bodies? Does he agree that they provide an invaluable function in cutting the rate of recidivism, and will he not consider according them more assistance, either financially or in other ways?

I did not mention that matter because I did not have the appropriate figures with me, but my recollection—the hon. Gentleman must recognise that I am speaking only from recollection—is that our record here is extremely good. If he wishes to put down specific Questions on the subject, I shall be glad to answer them, but my recollection is that NACRO, for example, to which he referred, receives a substantial grant from the Home Office, and we are anxious to help its initiatives in any way we can. We recognise the value of voluntary bodies—not only that one but a great many others working in this field—and we give every assistance that we can to them.

The House will not wish to be wearied by a rehearsal of all the present alternatives to imprisonment which are available to the courts, but their number is substantial, and they have been enlarged considerably in recent years, both by the last Government and by their predeces- sor. The most hopeful alternative is the community service order. This was the outcome of a report commissioned by the Labour Government, and it was put into effect in an Act passed by the Conservative Government, so there is no party difference between us on this issue.

We have now reached a stage at which my right hon. Friend has been able to inform all magistrates' court areas in England and Wales that the community service order will begin to be available to them from this April. We are looking forward with great interest to see what will be the effect on the prison population and on sentences of imprisonment when courts have this alternative available to them. We believe that it will be extremely useful, giving, as it does, a sense to the public that something positive is visited upon the offender while at the same time giving to the offender a sense that he is not burdened by the rather negative atmosphere of prison but is putting his efforts to help some worthy and desirable cause.

The schemes already instituted under community service orders are many and varied. I do not think that they include cleaning up the rubbish in Glasgow, but they include both some unpleasant work and some very positive and stimulating work. The results so far have been extremely good. At least 70 per cent. of those convicted and sentenced to a community service order have completed the order without any difficulty whatever. It is too early yet to know what the level of recividism will be after community service orders, but we hope that this sentence will prove in future to be a useful way of finding an alternative to imprisonment.

I am very much obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central for raising this important issue.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House, noting with concern the large numbers of citizens sent to prison who could more effectively and appropriately be treated in other environments, invites Her Majesty's Government to develop alternative forms of treatment for offenders and, in particular, urges a review of sentencing policy on women convicted of child stealing and on habitual drunken offenders.