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Prison Population

Volume 897: debated on Saturday 16 August 1975

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asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he is proposing to take any further steps to reduce the size of the prison population.


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what steps he is taking to reduce the prison population, including modifications, if any, to the parole system.


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what assessment he has made concerning his new policy about the size of the prison population; and whether he will make a statement.

I continue to watch with concern the high level of prison population and to keep under close review any measures that may contribute to its reduction. I hope that the more liberal approach to the granting of parole which I announced on 4th August in reply to a Question by my hon. Friend the member for Battersea, South (Mr. Perry)—[Vol. 897, c. 25–7.]—will have a beneficial effect. Other relevant measures include my proposals for the reform of bail procedures, and the expansion, as resources permit, of non-custodial penal provision.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the prison population in Britain, in percentage terms, is one of the highest in Europe? Given that fact, is it not now time to consider whether certain offences, particularly perhaps offences in relation to drunkenness, should be removed from the criminal code? Are the Government actively pursuing policies whereby community service orders can be initiated on a wider basis?

Yes, indeed. I accept broadly the premise of my hon. Friend's supplementary question. The relative prison population in Britain is not the highest, but it is one of the highest, in the developed world. This in itself is a reason why we should question whether our procedures are right.

Provision was made for the decriminalisation of drunkenness in the Criminal Justice Act 1967, which I had the privilege of piloting through the House but not of implementing. I am sorry that for a variety of reasons that measure has not been more completely implemented. One would like to see it implemented to a greater extent. However, I assure the House that the full implementation of this measure, although desirable in itself, would not, in numerical terms, have any very significant effect upon the prison population.

We are anxious, within the constraints which are necessarily placed upon resources, to extend community service orders as rapidly as we reasonably can to the whole country. I believe that in the substantial number of areas in which they can be applied now they are proving to be extremely useful and effective.

Any Member with a prison in his constituency will be aware of the problems of the overcrowding of prisons. Does the Home Secretary agree that it would be rather Gilbertian if, instead of making the punishment fit the crime, he were to give even the appearance of making the sentences fit the prisons?

I congratulate the hon. and gallant Gentleman upon the neatness of his supplementary question, but I am not sure that neatness of expression solves the very real problems which are involved. There is a great problem of strain upon resources. Even if we had limitless resources, which we certainly do not—the expenditure of which hon. Members opposite certainly, and hon. Members on this side, should not advocate in present circumstances—we should not in the short or even in the medium run obtain a very great expansion in prison capacity. Therefore, we must consider how well we are using our present resources.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his recent action on bail is very welcome? Will he consider another very modest but important step, namely, the absolute prohibition on placing children in adult prisons?

I should very much like to be able to achieve the latter objective as soon as I can. I hope that, certainly as regards girls, we shall be able to move in the near future. The position in this respect causes me considerable concern. It is not easy to deal in absolutes when one is dealing with people who need secure accommodation, and when there is a lack of secure accommodation. I assure my hon. Friend that my desires, and my intention to translate my desires into fact so far as practicable, march very closely alongside his, at any rate on this issue.

I welcome the recent utterances on bail, but will the right hon. Gentleman announce what percentage of the prison population is now awaiting bail, and what possible purpose there is in keeping in prison people who dug up the Headingley pitch when we are way into the football season?

I am not sure that these pastoral considerations are of the essence of this matter. Nor is it appropriate for me to make comments on individual cases. However, the hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the general trend of my thought in this matter, which I expressed—I hope courteously, but certainly forcibly—to the Magistrates' Association last week.

Substantial progress can be made. The numbers of those occupying places in prison who are awaiting trial, who are unconvicted or unsentenced, is substantial. Although I in no way underestimate the difficulties which confront magistrates and other courts in deciding whether to allow people out, it can often be a difficult decision. It is undoubtedly disturbing that many people who are remanded in custody do not receive a custodial sentence at the end of the day. One is bound to have considerable regard to this. Although a great deal can be done, and I am trying to do it by administrative action, I greatly hope that all parts of the House will assist me in getting the bail Bill through as quickly as possible.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) on children in prison is very welcome? Does he agree, however, that it is a barbaric practice, which is a condemnation of a so-called civilised society, that over 4,000 children between the ages of 14 and 16 are sent to penal establishments every year? Will he indicate the progress of the discussions that he is having with the local authorities on the phasing out of the "unruly certificate"? Will he indicate what other more imaginative measures he proposes to take in terms of non-custodial treatment for juveniles?

Not in answer to a supplementary question. It would be a very important and wide-ranging statement. I agree that there are many blots on a civilised society—blots which exist in the penal system but also blots which, unfortunately, exist in conduct which lead to the stress in the penal system.

Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that a further effective way of reducing the prison population would be to extend to other categories of law-breaker the immunity from criminal prosecution which, on his instructions to the Thames Valley Police, was conferred upon the hippies on the Watchfield pop site?

I do not happen to know the constituency which the hon. Gentleman represents, but his question is without foundation. I do not give instructions upon operational matters to any police force in this country, not even to the Metropolitan Police Force, of which I am the police authority, and still less to other police forces for which I am not the police authority. I gave no instructions to the Thames Valley Police. In so far as that was suggested by certain people and believed by the hon. Gentleman, it was done, to some extent, in order to create trouble out of a difficult situation.