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Commons Chamber

Volume 928: debated on Friday 18 March 1977

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House Of Commons

Friday 18th March 1977

The House met at Eleven o'clock


[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Public Expenditure Debate (Opposition Motion)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It will be within your knowledge that as a result of the events last night I invited the Prime Minister to follow the precedent set by his predecessor and face the House with a motion of confidence put down in his own name. He has declined to do so or to come to the House this morning. I have therefore handed in a motion

"That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government."
I understand that the Prime Minister will give facilities for it to be taken early next week. It will obviously be for the convenience of the House to know when it will be taken and I wonder, Mr. Speaker, whether you could invite the Lord President so to inform the House.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. Michael Foot)

In response to the right hon. Lady's last question, I can say that in the statement issued last night by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, immediately after he had had the representations from the right hon. Lady, he indicated that he thought the proper course was for the right hon. Lady, if she wished—and it was her choice—to put down a motion of no confidence, and we would provide the facilities according to the normal methods. That is what we propose. We therefore suggest that the debate should take place on Wednesday of next week.

I would ask to make a further statement on Monday about the rearrangement of the rest of the business. The business already announced for Monday will remain as I announced it yesterday.

Statutory Instruments, &C

In order to save the time of the House, I propose to put together the first three motions on the Order Paper.


That the draft Compulsory Acquisition by Public Authorities (Compensation) Amendment No. 2 (Wales) Order 1977 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.—[Mr. Stallard.]
That the draft Acquisition from the Crown (Grants) Amendment No. 2 (Wales) Order 1977 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments &c.—[Mr. Stallard.]
That the draft Community Land (Excepted Development) Amendment (Wales) Regulations 1977 be referre dto a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.—[Mr. Stallard.]

We come now to the first of the three motions relating to Commission documents.

Motion made.

That Commission Document No. R/1966/76 relating to Toxic and Dangerous Wastes be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.—[Mr. Stallard.]

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask for your guidance? You will know the difficulties which the House had had in dealing with EEC secondary legislation. We have now reached the point where motions to refer EEC secondary legislation to a Committee are put on the Order Paper only on Friday, and the first opportunity to oppose such motions is at 11 o'clock when the House meets. It is impossible in the time available for hon. Members to decide whether the instruments are important enough to justify debate on the Floor of the House. In addition, on this occasion the explanatory memorandum which assists hon. Members to decide was not even available in the Vote Office up until 11 o'clock. This is an extremely undesirable procedure, Mr. Speaker, and I wonder whether you or my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House could give some guidance on how we may avoid it in the future. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will withdraw these three motions so that we may have more time for consideration.

I listened with deep concern to the right hon. Gentleman's point of order. It is, of course, in order for these motions to be tabled, and that is all that concerns me. I have had no request from anybody else that they be withdrawn, so I must put the Question.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have such a request from at least one other person. I understand from the Select Committee on Procedure that the item relating to dentists concerns the free movement of dentists, whether in an employed or self-employed capacity, throughout the Community. The Government's explanatory memorandum was not in the Vote Office at 10.45 a.m., when I called for it. Therefore, it has not been possible for hon. Members to consider what course they should take, particularly this morning. I wish to reinforce my hon. Friend's point of order. Because papers are not available to hon. Members, the Question perhaps should not be put, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will decide that the motions should not be moved.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am very concerned about the document relating to dentists. We are in exceptional circumstances as a member of the Community in that we have the only National Health Service and a unique arrangement for the employment of dentists. The document deals with the employed and the self-employed, and we have contractural arrangements under the NHS. I am not certain how the matter will work out and whether there has been sufficient discussion with the British Dental Association and other interests concerned for us to be able to deal with this matter without further time.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether you would think it appropriate in these circumstances for the Lord President to intervene for the guidance and assistance of the House. This has not only to do with the points that have already been made. It concerns also the future rôle and status of the EEC Statutory Instruments Committee, which is still unclear. It was recently suggested by another Minister that that Committee might be used only for non-legislative instruments. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can give some guidance to a still-confused House.

I am required to put these motions forthwith. The House must decide what it wishes to do.

Question put and agreed to.


That Commission Document No. R/1966/76 relating to Toxic and Dangerous Wastes be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.


That Commission Document No. R/2196/76 relating to the Rights of Establishment of Dentists be referred to a Standings Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.—[Mr. Stallard.]


That Commission Document No. R/2697/76 relating to Data Processing be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.—[Mr. Stallard.]


11.12 a.m.

I beg to move,

That this House, gratefully acknowledging the vital contribution made by the Prison Service to the protection of the public by the containment and training of offenders convicted by the courts, deplores the present gross overcrowding of prisons; draws attention to the fact that the Government have deferred indefinitely five schemes designed to provide some 1,700 further places for category B and C prisoners; believes that in present conditions the Prison Service is prevented from discharging its full responsibilities; calls for urgent review of the categories of prisoners and of the adequacy of accommodation and training afforded to them; and urges fresh consideration of the principles governing the award and the remission of some custodial sentences.
Having quite uncharacteristically drawn first place in the Ballot a fortnight ago I have pleasure in moving this motion dealing with prisons and the rather neglected Prison Service. The motion refers to overcrowding and what ought to be done about it. It is a motion that, as we can all recognise, has a rather sad topicality. I hope that it will provide us with a useful and instructive debate on what must be one of the most difficult questions of our time.

Much the best way to reduce the prison population is to reduce the rate at which crimes are committed, but we do not show any signs of being able to do that at the moment. In increasing numbers we are sending our convicted prisoners through the gates of our prison establishments. Stone walls do a prison make, but our trouble is that we persist in treating prisons as though they were elastic. We have a situation in which, year after year, more prisoners are confined within prison establishments that are and have been, for some time now, grossly overcrowded.

Not surprisingly, the resulting pressures are at last making the news. Overcrowding in prisons at present tends to be seen solely in the context of the interests of the prisoner. It is the humanitarian connotations that have dominated the discussion. They are important connotations but they are not the only ones. The question of overcrowding ought to lead us to examine what we are using our prisons for and what we are expecting of our Prison Service. I hope that this motion will lead us into that territory today.

The public has a lively imagination about the prisons, inspired most recently by television programmes such as "Porridge". Of all our institutions I believe that few can be less well known to the public than the prisons, in their true character. Of all our Services, except, I suppose, the Secret Service, there can be few about which less is known by the public generally. The reason is that although the keeping of a human being in prison over many years is something that we all recognise to be necessary in certain circumstances for the protection of every one of us, at the same time it is something that we recognise to be unpleasant and that we know we could not do ourselves.

Therefore we are grateful to hand over to the Prison Service those whom the courts have deprived of their liberty. As prisoner and prison officer disappear from our sight we are content that they should also disappear from our minds. For long periods of time that is exactly what happens—until there comes a series of escapes, a mutiny, a riot or a number of suicides. Then it is as though we feel that we must match the profundity of our past indifference to the prisons with the vigour of our instant, horrified concern and public condemnation.

The pattern is familiar. Reports are demanded by next week if not sooner. Urgent crash programmes are constructed for the Secretary of State and as hastily debated. The memoirs of every former inmate of the prison in question get a brief and generally unquestioning exposure and then it is all over and we turn our minds once more to more agreeable matters and are somehow conscious of a certain virtue. The prisons, together with those who serve time in them and those who serve us in them, are allowed once more to sink out of mind. But the truth is, as I believe the Prison Service would tell us, that the series of escapes, the major riot, the mutiny, the run of suicides, or whatever it may be, were not sudden eruptions that burst forth without any warning. They could have been prevented in most cases if action had been taken in time, if warnings had been heeded and reforms pursued. It is probable, also, that matters could have been dealt with at much less cost. We read that the cost of repair following the trouble at Hull Prison is likely to be about £2 million.

I fear that once the balloon has gone up the spectacle of politicians, among others, vying with each other in condemnation of the system is not very inspiring. There is no longer any excuse for indifference about prisons. The riot at Hull and the television focus on the problems of overcrowding have brought prisoners and conditions in the prisons into the public eye. The first thing that the public eye should note is that our prisons face a crisis of control.

There is a hard and extremely toxic core in the prison population that has nothing to lose. Its members cause immense disruption in any prison, quite disproportionate to their numbers. They call for great concentrations of prison staff, upon whom and upon whose families great strain is continually imposed. Such prisoners do not lack—this is a modern manifestation—for powerful support outside, support that is vocal and well-organised in many cases.

Alas, the same does not seem to be true of the Prison Service that has to look after such prisoners and for whom no one seems to speak in public and about whose problems no one seems very much to care. The Prison Service notices the difference. Much could be done to help the service in the containment of this hard core of prisoners if the present policy of dispersal were reversed and if three or four prisons were developed, each comprising units—although not exclusively so —of a basic kind to contain the ruthless element, which is a small, hard core of the prison population. I hope that we shall learn the Government's thinking on this and on the morale of the Prison Service generally, which I believe now to be dangerously low.

The next thing that the public eye ought to note about prisons, now that it has been concentrated upon conditions there, is the extent of overcrowding. It ought to notice that because of its humane implications, but not only because of them. The effects of overcrowding go far deeper than that. I believe that they work against the proper, functioning of the Prison Service and the prison system as a whole.

In November 1976 the prison population topped 42,000 for the first time. Most of us know that 16 months earlier Mr. Roy Jenkins, the then Home Secretary, in a speech to a meeting of NACRO, had said:
"The prison population naw stands at 40,000. If it should rise to, say, 42,000, conditions in the system would approach the intolerable, and drastic action to relieve the position will be inescapable."
I understand that at the end of last month the figure was down to 41,577, but in February this year 15,913 prisoners were sleeping either two or three in a cell designed for one. Just under 5,000 were sleeping three to a cell. We are entitled to know what the Government propose to do about this and what drastic action they now have in mind. The figures were at about that level during the heat of last summer. I do not suppose that great powers of imagination are needed to picture what that meant.

The worst of this overcrowding is to be found in the remand prisons. Brixton is an example. It has 65 per cent. overcrqowding. It is bad enough that we tolerate the overcrowding of convicted prisoners, but in 1975 about 9 per cent. of the average daily population in our prisons were untried prisoners on remand. That means a little under 4,000 every day. I suspect that it is the same today. Perhaps the Minister of State can give us the figures.

It is not uncommon for such prisoners to remain for many weeks, if not months, awaiting trial. Many of them are found not guilty at the end of it all. Paragraph 87 of the Prison Department's Report for 1975, which deals with remand prisons, states that
"The very high number of prisoners in remand establishments was responsible for a decrease in the activities which could take place outside cells, particularly association. During this period the need for mutual tolerance and understanding between prisoners and staff was of great importance."
We can all admire the draftsmanship of that passage, but we cannot continue to pay lip service to the conecpt that lies at the centre of our criminal law, namely, that a man is entitled to be presumed innocent until he is found guilty, while at the same time we permit these conditions to obtain in our remand prisons. I do not think we can allow that to continue without profound shame.

After the remand prisons it is in the local prisons that overcrowding is worst. At Canterbury, in my own county, there were in February 346 inmates in a prison designed for 242. Two hundred sleep either three or two in a cell designed for one. I believe that in many local prisons it is probably the case that the regime is confined to one of containment only. In these prisons the Prison Service can do no more than contain the inmates. We shall probably hear that the Home Office agrees that this is so. That is why we must realise that overcrowding has far more than humanitarian implications.

We ought to recall that the aims of the Prison Service, which Parliament has endorsed, are to ensure that the treatment of the inmate is such as to preserve and promote his self-respect; to ensure that the harmful effects of removal from normal life are minimised; and to ensure that the inmates are prepared for and assisted on discharge. Over and above the basic task of containment, there is not one of these aims which is not impeded, if not actually defeated, by chronic overcrowding.

The matter does not end there, because it is elementary that a prison establishment can run only if there exists between the staff and the inmates an understanding and a measure of co-operation. Without that, we get a "prisoner-of-war" relationship and nothing else. But if we have that understanding we have not only the foundation for the efficient and quiet running of the prison; we also have the foundation for perhaps the most important part of the Prison Service, in the long run, which is its rehabilitative work.

There are many who know more about this than I do, but I find it heartening to see how importantly the Prison Service takes this side of its work, from the top down to the ordinary landing officer. But the worse the overcrowding the more time a man spends locked up in his cell and the less amenable he is to take advice or help from the staff who turn the key. So it is that in overcrowded prisons the flash-point for trouble gets lower and lower, until in the end something quite trivial can become the fuse for a mutiny or a riot.

That is almost trite. It is then the prison officer who has to cope with this, often to his own great danger, not only danger to his life but also subsequent danger from false accusations made against him by inmates who have little to lose to journalists with a reputation to gain. It is little wonder that the Prison Service, which shares none of the blame for the overcrowding, today contains some rather bitter public servants.

The next thing that I hope the public will observe is that in the face of these conditions and in spite of rising crime, the Government have cut back the prison building programme that they inherited. They have deferred indefinitely three major schemes and two others which would have provided about 1,700 new places in the years following 1979–80. Worst of all, these include 900 places at three closed establishments, in Leicestershire, Worcestershire and Suffolk, for young prisoners. I say "worst of all" because the 1975 report tells us that in that year there was a quite unprecedented rise of 20 per cent. in the young prison population. As to accommodation, I quote from paragraph 122 of the report, which states that
"There are only three young prisoner centres, and the majority of the young prisoner population remains in far from suitable conditions in wings of adult training prisons or in whatever accommodation can be found or spared in local prisons or remand centres."
I believe that continues. It is almost trite to say that these young people are poised on the threshold of a sterile life of crime, which will entail the community in vast expense. Indeed, most have already crossed that threshold by the time they land in prison. Yet at this last effective opportunity to deflect them, we tie our hands and opt for containing them in
"far from suitable conditions"
"in whatever accommodation can be found or spared in local prisons or remand centres."
I do not think that is sensible. I believe it is the one thing not to do.

I am skating superficially over a vast subject because there are many hon. Members who wish to speak, but I wish to turn briefly to what we ought to do. Always remembering that the prisons are there for the protection of the public, I believe that we should start by looking at the categories of prisons and the categories of offenders in our prisons, and ask whether we are really sure that they ought to be there at all.

I begin with those who are in prison because they have defaulted in the payment of fines. In 1976 there were 13,600 of them and at least half have been estimated to be there because they could not find the money, whether because they are incompetent or bad managers or whatever. In 1975, 54 per cent. stayed in prison for the full term of their sentence. Let us by all means have a new offence of persistently failing to pay a fine when the means to pay it was available, but let us not clutter up the prisons with defaulters of all descriptions. Is not the way to deal with them through community service, or adult training centres? This was proposed in 1970 by the Wootton Committee. What are the Government proposing to do about it?

There are also those who are in prison only because they are mentally abnormal in one way or another. Many thousands fall into that category. A feeling exists, especially in the remand prisons, that the Prison Service is being used as a kind of answer to the old poor law houses. Time and again, what happens is that the court sends somebody on remand to a remand prison, he is tidied up, he is washed and cleaned, he is given a pill for his anxiety —which is often the cause of his trouble —and then back he goes to court. The court remarks on how well he looks and how much his experience has done for him, sends him away, and then back he comes a week or two later.

I turn next to the vagrancy offences. My first brief comment here is to ask whether we cannot make some provision for receiving into mental hospitals, perhaps with increased secure accommodation, those who are cluttering up our prisons only because they are mentally abnormal. I shall leave the vagrancy offences at that. I feel sure that others will support me in saying that the day is long past when this social problem should be treated as a criminal problem.

Drunkenness also I pass over, but it should be remembered that many thousands are in prison because of drink problems. Is not the way to deal with these cases to give financial help to the voluntary agencies which are willing and able to set up suitable hostels? In the long run that would be far cheaper than imprisoning people for drunkenness problems.

I turn now to sentencing policy. There must now be a thorough-going review of that policy, and I hope that the Government will set it in motion. I believe that any such review should be conducted in the light of the rising level of crime—especially crimes of violence against the person and burglary—and it must have as its primary object the protection of the public. It must therefore make provision for the safe containment, over many years, of a hard core of criminals who are ruthless public enemies. There are, however, three areas of sentencing policy that could, I believe, substantially reduce the prison poulation within that overall requirement, and they are these.

First, it is now generally agreed that that the first custodial sentence relies for its remedial effect not on its length but on its custodial nature. It is being sent to prison that hurts. That first custodial sentence, therefore, in my view, ought generally to be very short. It is interesting to note that Holland, which has the lowest prison population per 100,000 in Western Europe, has average sentence lengths far less than ours.

Next, we have no means at present of imposing a prison sentence that marks the gravity of the offence but may in part be suspended; it is all or nothing. I believe that a court ought to have power to require that the first part of a sentence, which may be small, shall be served in prison and that the remaining part should be suspended. That would offer more protection—much better protection than increased remission—because it would allow one to recall the offender if he went wrong again.

Third, I believe—this is far more controversial—that much could be done to reduce the prison population by granting a special remission of sentence to an offender who has pleaded guilty. Many are the trials that wend their weary and expensive way, to the advantage of no one but the lawyers, because the accused, though he knows that he has no defence, prefers to gamble on a perverse or muddled jury rather than acknowledge that he is guilty—and sometimes his boldness is rewarded. The cost to the public is enormous and the effect on remand prisons and the court waiting lists is very serious.

Every judge already makes some allowance for the fact that an accused has pleaded guilty. The trouble is that no one knows how much allowance, or even whether it has been made. The allowance is covert and indeterminate. It would be far better for the court to impose a sentence that represented the full tariff—the Court of Appeal would correct it if it were too much—and then for remission to be automatically allowed. The innocent would continue to fight, but the guilty would admit their guilt in far greater numbers, the pressures on remand prisons especially would be greatly eased, and the overall length of sentences would be reduced.

I believe that that proposal would have the support of many of the judges. It was certainly received with enthusiasm at a recent conference at Wakefield, organised by the Prison Governors' Association.

The state of our prisons is causing great anxiety. They contain too many people for the Prison Service to cope with. Some should not be there at all, others ought to be more tightly contained, and most of them need far more attention than they can be given if the aims of the Prison Service are to be fulfilled. Our prisons are staffed by a service that deserves the support of this House and of the public but seldom gets it.

In order to draw attention to these matters I have moved my motion today, and I hope that the debate will draw a little attention to them, as well as drawing a response from the Government.

11.35 a.m.

I am pleased that the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) chose our prisons and the Prison Service as his subject today, and I am glad that his motion deals with the matter in such a sensible and restrained way. I congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman on his speech. I feel able to support almost all that he said, though I thought that he was a little unfair on the Government in regard to their prison building programme. All of us are concerned about the effect of public expenditure cuts, and I agree that it is sad to see that there is a cut-back in prison building. For my part, I should much prefer us to be able to cut back on the need for that prison building.

As I say, I congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman on the restrained wording of his motion, which is in notable contrast to some of the rather more hysterical utterances that we see on the Order Paper for consideration later today.

I shall direct attention to two aspects of this matter: first, the public attitude to punishment and imprisonment; second, the likelihood that, if we do not take drastic action, our prison population will rise rapidly from what has already been described as an unacceptable or intolerable level. We have almost run out of words to describe the situation. Certainly, a breakdown of the prison system will be likely.

One aspect of the problem was brought home to me some time ago when I visited Risley remand centre to see a constituent. One prison officer there proudly told me that the number of suicides, which at one time had been a fairly frequent occurrence at Risley, had been reduced, and he claimed that as some sort of success, until one of his colleagues pointed out that the only reason for the reduction was that inmates were now living three to a cell, so that suicides had become almost impossible because of the action of other prisoners rather than the work of the Prison Service. It seems to me that there are growing signs that unless we bring the prison population down the position will become impossible.

I turn now to the question of public attitudes. I think it very sad that at this point in our history there is still the firm belief that punishments are a deterrent and that they prevent crime, the idea being not that punishment should be tailored to the individual criminal but that it should be used to impress would-be criminals.

I believe that that attitude, which runs far too widely through our society, bedevils almost all our troubles in regard to punishment and the Prison Service. I wish that we could get across to the public at large the truth that deterrent punishments do not work. In the first place, most criminals do not expect to be caught. Second, because of the educational standards of a very large number of people who turn to crime, because of their behaviour and the the fact that they are virtually unaware of what happens in the outside world, being interested only in their immediate lives, they are just the group upon whom the idea of deterrence is likely to have no impact. They are concerned with living for the moment and have long since given up dreaming of the future. Their hopes for the future have already been dashed. In my view, therefore, there is less likelihood of the detrerrent sentence having any effect upon these criminal groups.

As I say, I believe that we must get across to the public at large the truth that deterrent sentences do not work and the principle that in our society punishments should be tailored to the individual who has been convicted, putting aside the idea of their having some effect on unknown persons who might be likely to commit crime.

We must examine other ways of deterring crime rather than looking only at punishment. I believe that the most important thing is to increase the certainty that criminals will be caught. It is ridiculous that still too many opportunities for crime are almost encouraged by society. We move far too much money about the country, and far too many opportunities are presented that encourage people to consider robberies, often involving violence. If we were to try to reorganise our society, even in small ways, it would reduce the temptation provided by the fact that large sums of money are carried, often unnecessarily, from one part of the country to another. That is the type of step that society should be taking to reduce opportunities for crime, rather than hoping that a harsh deterrent sentence will stop people wanting to commit crimes.

The second matter with which we must seek to deal is the idea in the public's mind of what a lengthy prison sentence really means. There is a feeling, as reflected in the correspondence in my postbag, that if a period of five years in prison does not deter, we should examine periods of 10 years, and, if that does not work, 20 years. There is complete lack of understanding and imagination on the part of some people about what a five-year sentence means. When, in a newspaper headline, we see a reference to a five-year sentence, it may not seem to be very long when we think about it quickly, but when somebody is away for that length of time it represents a large slice of time for that person. The law-abiding citizen needs to be given far greater insight into what it is like to spend five years in prison. The problem is that television tends to portray prison as a "Porridge"-like institution, which is nothing like the harsh reality of the situation that faces those who serve five-year prison sentences, or even shorter sentences. Such sentences should be regarded as blanks in people's lives. One can only imagine what it is like to wipe out the last five years of one's life, and in that way the reality of the situation is brought home to people.

At my advice bureau last Saturday morning one woman was extremely concerned about the fact that her husband was serving three years in prison. He is in Dartmoor Prison, and she finds it virtually impossible to visit him from Stockport. She faces many problems, as does her husband, because he is an epileptic, and that condition was probably one of the reasons for his turning to crime. Therefore, for that couple a three-year sentence is a long, harsh one. A little later at my surgery a lady came in complaining that prison sentences were far too short. I wish I could have introduced those constituents to each other and allowed them to discuss matters for half an hour or so.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Does he agree that the suffering in such cases falls very much on the prisoner's family, who have to bear many burdens?

I accept that point. I also believe that the constituent who wanted harsher sentences would say that the person concerned should have thought of the effects on his family before committing a crime. In my experience many who find themselves in prison lack imagination and do not appreciate the effects on their families. Therefore, they are not deterred, because when they commit crime they feel that they will get away with it.

We must seek to make those two groups in society face the reality of a prison sentence, which is a very long time. On the other hand, we must appreciate that many who are horrified by what they read in newspaper headlines still believe that if a five-year sentence does not work a 10-year sentence will. We must seek to bridge that gap.

The second problem that concerns me is the evidence that the prison population will grow unless there is a rapid change in our attitude both to the length of sentences and the number of people we send to prison. The figures may well grow because of the present population bulge, which is now moving through secondary school and will soon be coming into the 17–25 age group, from which, sadly large numbers of our prisoners initially are drawn. This bulge, which is now passing through the secondary school, will produce in the next few years about 750,000 extra people on the labour market If the pupils who are now going through school were receiving a first-class education and had the support of good social services, and if when they came on to the labour market they had the certainty of obtaining a job, I still believe that the prison population would be likely to increase just because of the bulge. By a pure arithmetical exercise, we shall see an increase in the number of people in that age band and there will be a greater increase in prison population because of the problems that they are experiencing.

When considering public expenditure matters, cuts in the social services and education services and job opportunities, not cutting small amounts may have the effect, in the long term, of keeping people out of prison. Perhaps more could be done in that way than by the expenditure of far greater amounts of public expenditure on keeping people in prison.

I believe that one of the most obvious roads to crime lies in the failure of children of 11 or 12, or even younger, to respond to the school situation. Their failure to learn will lead to an increase in anti-social behaviour and truancy, and from that stage there is a steady path towards crime.

We must bring about drastic improvements in the education system for non-learners, and certainly we must aim at great improvements in the preventive work carried out by the social services. Far too much of our social services is aimed at "fire brigade" activities. Once somebody is before the courts, little can be done. We should be looking to the situation at an early stage when there are signs of problems at school, with parents, and in discipline. The social services are far too pressed at present to give advice and to get through to these youngsters, and more should be done to assist in that area. In the next few years it is important to bring far more resources to bear on that age group to stop them becoming potential candidates for the prison population.

I welcome the fact that the Government are to do more to increase the number of prisons available for young people. The Government are doing a little more than the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells said, but I agree that they are not doing quite enough.

I turn to the need to keep people out of prison. I welcome the way in which the Bail Act is working. It is clear from the initial figures that bail has become more easily available and that the numbers of young people going to prison on remand has been cut.

There is one major area of activity that we must question on the subject of bail, and that relates to cases in which people have no fixed abodes. Judging by evidence in the magistrates' courts, when an offender lives at home with his parents there is often little difficulty in obtaining bail, but when a person has no fixed abode the occasions when bail is granted are limited. The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders has suggested that certain people should be earmarked to look after such people so as to get over the difficulty in regard to abode. I hope that the Government will examine the matter and will ensure that nobody is deprived of bail unnecessarily.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will know about the experiment that is now taking place in magistrates' courts involving bail and a verification system—a system that is being encouraged by the Government. That seeks to deal with the problem posed by those who have no fixed abode.

I certainly welcome that. I think that the problem is how quickly we can adopt generally an experiment that is taking place in one area. I am concerned, as is the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells, about the problems of remand. I heard two lawyers in my area saying that it does not matter if someone remains on remand for a long time because the treatment then is rather different from that which he receives when he is convicted. In my view the truth is completely the reverse. Remand is a demoralising time, with no treatment in prison. Once conviction occurs there ought to be far more treatment taking place. We also ought to try to speed up the court process.

I agree that there seem to be many attractions in the idea of encouraging people who are guilty to plead guilty, by seeing that they receive a lighter sentence. I would support that, except for one slight fear in my mind about those who are genuinely innocent but are found guilty by the courts. Such persons may get longer sentences than the person who is guilty. That is my one reservation—that things would be particularly harsh for the person who is not guilty. I know that it is difficult, but otherwise I would go along with the idea. If only we could speed up the courts' process we could get people out of prison much quicker.

I agree about the question of reducing the number of offences punishable by imprisonment. I am concerned about the problem of maintenance. The Finer Committee made clear that in its view there was no point in sending a person to prison because he fell down on paying maintenance.

There is the case of two of my constituents, one of whom is supposed to receive maintenance and the other is supposed to pay it. My constituent who is supposed to receive the maintenance never does. Every so often she loses her patience and returns to the court. My other constituent ends up with a prison spell, but the woman still does not receive any money. This is utterly ridiculous. The woman finds it difficult to bring up her boys without that maintenance money. If she could have an extra £ 3 a week it would help to solve her problems. She never gets the money, and in the end her ex-husband goes to prison, and it costs us a great deal of money to keep him there for three weeks or more. The ex-wife has a slight feeling of revenge because he has gone to prison.

We ought to be able to design a system that ensures that the woman gets that financial help and there is no need to send her ex-husband to prison. If he had a fixed job and worked regular hours the court would be able to get that money. But he is the sort of person who cannot keep a fixed job and he does not work regularly. Sometimes he may have money to spend in the local pub, which particularly irks his ex-wife. I hope that the Government will look at the problem of sending people to prison for not paying maintenance.

In my constituency, the local authority has recently turned to the idea of sending rate defaulters to prison. It is a pretty expensive process to take them to court and send them to prison, and there are far more people defaulting on debts today. We ought to be looking at far cheaper ways of getting the money. Stockport local authority might have done much more to discuss the problem with the Department of Health and Social Security. For example, on the question of payment of rates directly, the Department could do more to make it easy for rates to be paid directly to the local authority, which would keep these people out of the courts and out of prison.

I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells about suspended prison sentences. There ought to be more encouragement to give people a taster by starting off a suspended sentence with a short spell in prison. I am certain that there are cases that are ideal for suspended sentences but the judge does not give one because he believes that someone ought to spend a little time in prison. Some sentences could start off with a short spell in prison, with the person coming out on licence for the rest of the sentence, unless he committed further offences. This would have many attractions and would avoid that same person going to prison for a much longer sentence.

It is clear that we still have far too many people in prison. Some of them are there just because they are socially inadequate, particularly those who ought to be attenting detoxification centres rather than prisons.

We have two major problems. We have to change public attitudes to sentences, and we have to convince people that five years is a long time. If everyone could understand the harshness of five years in prison it might help to reduce crime and improve treatment. It would make the life of prison warders more rewarding and acceptable if they felt that they had a useful rôle to play rather than just keeping people out of society for long stretches.

11.56 a.m.

The House has been done a great service by the motion in the name of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew). The House was done a great service by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) who tabled a similar motion on 20th December. My hon. and learned Friend put forward some concrete ideas which should be considered. I was interested in what the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) said about catching the criminal. I was frightened by the clear-cut manner in which he stressed his belief that there would be a growth in the prison population.

In discussing the motion today we are all in a cuckoo land, with a cuckoo-led Government with cuckoo Ministers who do not do anything. From the evidence I shall bring before the House shortly, we know that nothing will be done by the Government about this any more than on other matters.

I must turn to my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) in the hope that when we from this side have a Government in the near future he will see that we shall do what the present Government have so dismally failed to do for the police service. Indeed, they have failed dismally to do anything for the police or the Prison Service. It is through the Government's policy of cutting expenditure on vitally important matters that the situation is what it is today. This Government are deliberately responsible for the lowest-ever morale in the prison and police services.

The present situation has come about through lack of money. One need only look for that to the tragic Hughes report that we all will have read. It was issued only a short time ago. Let us take just one charge to which I have referred from the relevant extract of the Governor's annual report on Her Majesty's Prison at Leicester. It said that:
"Budget control resulted in a reduction of searching which plays a very important part in security."
The report clearly sets out the reason why Mr. Hughes escaped with a knife. The disastrous result that it caused is only too well known. That will not be the only case, unless we tackle this problem and provide more money. We do not want more occurrences like this, and it is within our ability to stop them happening.

The Government have done nothing about overcrowding. Indeed, they have cut prison building to an enormous extent. The latest figures were given in answer to a Written Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Brotherton) on 14th December 1976. They show that the certified normal accommodation in prisons is 36,709. We have a prison population of 42,270. The rebuilding due to be finished by 1980 will create about 5,000 additional places. Therefore, in 1980 and 1981 there will still be about 2,000 places fewer in our prisons than the population. The hon. Member for Stockport, North expects a growth in the prison population.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells said that 16,000 people are in accommodation housing two or three people which was designed for only one person.

The hon. Gentleman must be aware that the problem of overcrowding in prisons, with two or three prisoners sharing a cell, is not a new phenomenon. It has not developed since the Labour Party took office. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us how much more he thinks we should be spending to eradicate the evils to which he is rightly referring? Does he think that he will carry his party with him? That was what last night's shemozzle was about.

Not entirely. The hon. Lady is correct in saying that overcrowding has not occurred overnight. However, it has never been the problem that it is today. Therefore, more money must be spent on the Prison Service.

The problem of overcrowding has been illustrated by the riots at Hull Prison as well as by shortages of money for prison staff, with warders having to do less overtime, with the result that prisoners have less time for recreation and are locked up for more hours.

Without prejudging the situation at Hull, does the hon. Gentleman accept that the number of prisoners in Hull Prison was less than the certified normal accommodation? There was no overcrowding at Hull Prison.

My point about Hull—[HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."] I agree entirely with what the Minister has said about Hull, but there is overcrowding in well over 50 per cent. of the 120 prisons. Hull is not one of the prisons with overcrowding.

To return to the Hughes report, in his general remarks on the régime, the Governor in his annual report for 1976 on Her Majesty's Prison, Leicester, states:
"Much of this I would put down to the effects of overcrowding, to the pressure staff have been working under as a result of cash limits and budget hours, and further limitations of the meagre regime caused by shortage of workshop instructors."
The report mentions again and again the critical situation that we are in.

Let us see what is in the minds of the present cuckoo Government. What is making them cut down on prison rebuilding? What are they singing? It is fewer prisoners, shorter sentences, rehabilitation in society. I say to the cuckoos that people do not want hardened criminals to be loose among them. It is too heavy a responsibility and burden for society to bear.

If we reach my motion later today, I shall speak about the vast increase in crime, in mugging, and the threat to property. The police establishment is over 10 per cent. short. The private security firms employ well over double the number of the police. That is because, under the present Government, the only way in which people may look after their property is by employing private firms.

I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's flow of prejudice, but does he recognise that the number of police rose by 2,000 net last year and that most of the incease went to the inner cities? Will he leaven his bile with a little fact?

The police establishment is 116,000. The present number of police is 100,000. Therefore, we are 16,000 short.

The hon. Gentleman has just asserted that there are twice as many people working for private security firms as there are in the police force. Can he give the source of those figures?

Over 200,000 people work for the sucurity services. I shall be pleased to give details to the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman has said that the police force is 16,000 under strength, and the Under-Secretary of State has told him that 2,000 policemen have been recruited since the Labour Party took office. Does not that mean that under the Conservative Government the police were 18,000 under strength? What was the hon. Gentleman saying then?

It was far more difficult, when the Conservative Party was in office, to get recruits for the police service because we had full employment—

The Government know quite well that under their regime unemployment has more than doubled. If they want to deny that, let them try.

We must consider what should be done to protect property and families. It will be done only by expenditure. It will not be done by the Government. On 17th March 1975 my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken) asked whether we could afford not to have an adequate police force. My hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash said that the Government were treating the matter with complacency. The Minister, in replying, said:
"I am not trying to make out that this is a happy situation".—[Official Report, 17th March 1975; Vol. 888, c. 1338.]
In July 1975 the Home Secretary promised nothing in answer to what the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Boyden) had said. The result was the same in the summer of 1976. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Lady the Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) made it clear to the police at their summer conference that there was no hope for them in the Government's thinking.

I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash to assure us that when we form our Government we shall assure the people that we will put the police and the Prison Service in the special position which they deserve. They do a special job and they deserve to be in a special position.

To the Minister I merely repeat the Prospero quotation from "The Tempest" which he made in the debate on prisons on 20th December 1976:
"Our revels now are ended."—[Official Report, 20th December 1976; Vol. 9223, c. 399.]
The country hopes that his revels and those of his Government and his party are ended. They have cost us dear.

12.10 p.m.

How can one follow such a speech as the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Le Marchant) has just made in what has otherwise been a well-informed and well-tempered debate? I compliment the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) on having been fortunate enough to come first in the Ballot, on putting down the motion and, as was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett), on the compassionate way in which he dealt with the subject. I disagree with little of what the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells said.

I agree that there is perhaps a case for the morale of prison officers to be increased and for public statements defending them, but we ought to recognise that they are in many cases just as much prisoners as the people for whom they care. They are just as much confined to the institutions as are the prison inmates. Prison officers could help themselves, and perhaps Home Office Ministers could help them if the public were told more of what goes on in prisons and if prison officers were encouraged to talk more freely to the Press and public generally and to air their complaints and grievances. There is no reason why they should not do so. Prison officers have legitimate grievances and complaints, and the more they are able to air them the more we are likely to have proper debate about prison conditions and their grievances.

Unless we take active steps to deal with some of the failings of our prison system, the morale of officers will decline. They are now clearly seen as custodians—inevitably they are custodians performing a containment function—and their reformative and rehabilitative functions will become more difficult as the prisons become more overcrowded.

I take issue to some extent with the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells over his suggestion that we could reduce the size of the Prison Service to some extent by allowing remission for offenders who plead guilty. I leave that to the lawyers, but less articulate and less adequate people could be pressured and inclined to plead guilty as a way of lessening the aggravation with the police and the courts and of getting the whole thing over with earlier.

It is unfortunate that the hon. Member for High Peak did not remain a Whip and keep his mouth closed today. He spoilt a debate that has been dispassionate and compassionate. We are all concerned about the Prison Service, the morale of prison officers and prisoners' conditions, and that is not susceptible to the billigerent objectivity displayed by the hon. Member for High Peak. It amazes me that he may have another bite of the cherry later this afternoon. If there is a reason why hon. Members should make long speeches, it is to keep him out of the debate. One can only assume that the speech that the hon. Member has already made is a mild version of the more hysterical one that may come later.

Not only prisoners and prison staff are in prison, but it may well be that those in the Opposition Whips' Office suffer from some psychological claustrophobia. Perhaps the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Le Marchant) is breaking out and that is the reason for what we have just heard.

The only trouble is that when the hon. Member for High Peak breaks out, it is into blind prejudice.

Overcrowding is the most important problem. It is not a new phenomenon, as the hon. Member for High Peak would have us believe, because prisons were much worse in Victorian times and before. In 1975 over one-third of those in custody were crowded and there were two or three prisoners in a cell that was meant for one. Now, about 10,000 prisoners live two to a cell and 3,000 live three to a cell. That is the inevitable result of the sentencing processes of the courts as well as the increase in crime.

I do not dissent from the general point that overcrowding has gone up, but there are now fewer people three to a cell than formerly and more people two to a cell.

Yes. The figures are clear and they are contained in the Prison Department Report.

The important thing is the consequence of overcrowding on prisoners and officers. It is clear to anyone who has seen three men inhabiting a cell which was designed on niggardly lines for one person that it is degrading for men to spend 23 hours a day in each other's company and to wash and slop out while almost in physical contact with each other. There is no way in which we can talk about our Prison Service being civilised, compassionate and humane, because the dignity of these men is not enhanced by such conditions. It is extremely claustrophobic.

The fact that prisons are overcrowded means that there is less time for assessment, training and recreation and that, therefore, we cannot properly implement the reformative and rehabilitative programme that we wholeheartedly wish to see implemented. Such conditions create more resentment and bitterness and a greater potentiality for the riots and disturbances that have been a marked feature of our system in recent years. They are likely to occur with greater frequency in the future than in the past. If one leaves aside the compassionate grounds for doing something about overcrowding, there is still the straightforward selfish issue of trying to avoid the trouble that is the inevitable consequence of overcrowding.

We need to look at means of reducing the prison population. The former Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, referred to the "reducible minimum", although I never understood what that meant. We should look at sentences. We tend to blame Ministers and the service for everything that is wrong with prisons, but in fact the service and its officers are often the pawns in a system over which they have no control. Prisons are the dustbins and they have to take everyone sent to them. If the courts decide to send a particular type of person or a certain number of prisoners, the Prison Service has no option but to accept them and to do its best with the resources at its disposal. Therefore, it is difficult to complain bitterly about the activities of the Home Office, Ministers and officers when much responsibility lies with the courts.

There has been an unfortunate tendency to give longer sentences that do not have a deterrent effect and do not allow for rehabilitation or reform. The courts have a major responsibility to lessen sentences and to examine the appropriate length of sentences. Detection is a greater deterrent to crime than punishment or imprisonment. Imprisonment is as much a deterrent whether it is for one week, six months or two years. Detection and imprisonment are the deterrent, not the length of the sentence. Imprisonment does not deter. We have a record number of people in prison and a record crime rate. Those who go to prison are not deterred from future acts of crime by having been in prison. They may have been sentenced to four or five months or years, but the majority of them commit further offences. That belies any claim that we are reforming or rehabilitating.

The recidivism rate casts doubts on the effect of imprisonment. Prison does not rehabilitate; it punishes. Do we want a system of punishment that imposes long spells of imprisonment? Are we such a vengeful society that we are prepared to bear that enormous expense for the community and its inevitable consequences? The punitive aspects of imprisonment are exaggerated, and they do not bring the results that we desire.

A large number of the people in prison are not a real threat to the community. Nobody wants to let out the so-called hardened criminals who were referred to by the hon. Member for High Peak. We accept that we should protect society from dangerous and violent individuals, and we must decide who they are among the 40,000 prisoners who are at present incarcerated. All the paraphernalia of the Prison Service that we devote to dealing with prisoners is not worth while in terms of the small number of individuals who are a danger to the community. We need a more positive definition of those who must be incarcerated and contained for the benefit of the safety of the community as a whole.

The hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells referred to the numbers of people in prisons on remand. Over 10 per cent. of the average daily prison population is composed of remand prisoners. I am referring to both adults and young persons who are technically innocent because they have not yet been convicted of an offence or have been convicted but not sentenced.

At the conclusion of their trial, a substantial proportion of remand prisoners are given a "not guilty" verdict or are given non-custodial sentences. A particular aspect of remand which particularly concerns me is the number of 14 to 16-year-old boys and girls who are remanded to Prison Service establishments. Each year between 4,000 and 5,000 such young people are sent to remand centres and local prisons, not because anyone wants to send them to those places but because of the failure of the system and of successive Governments to devote sufficient resources to the full implementation of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969.

Of the 5,014 boys remanded or received into Prison Service establishments in 1975, 1,092 were subsequently found not guilty or were given non-custodial sentences. Of the 396 girls received into Prison Service establishments on remand in that year, 269 were given non-custodial sentences or found not guilty.

That is not the responsibility of the Home Office, expect in so far as it has to look after them when they are committed by the courts to Prison Service establishments. The responsibility lies fairly and squarely with the Department of Health and Social Security. Yet a substantial number of schoolchildren should not be in Prison Service establishments. It would greatly ease the burden on the Home Office, the prisons and, indeed, the prison officers if we could properly implement the philosophy underlying the 1969 Act and remove the anomaly and scandal of the 4,000 or 5,000 schoolchildren who are remanded to Prison Service establishments each year. It does them and the community no good to have them in those communities and institutions.

There are many other categories of individuals who have committed offences which ought not to be criminal offences and for which they ought not to be imprisoned. Hon. Members who have spoken so far—except the hon. Member for High Peak, who wanted to make a short, sharp political speech—have mentioned those categories.

One category consists of alcoholics or drunks. As long ago as 1872 a Select Committee of the House recommended that we should end the imprisonment of drunken offenders. In fact, almost 100 years later to the day, we had a report on habitual drunken offenders in 1972 which recommended the ending of the imprisonment of drunks and the setting up of detoxification centres and hostels for alcoholics. Yet, several years after the Criminal Justice Act provided for the decriminalising, if I may call it that, of the offence of simple drunkenness, we have not moved much further. In 1975, 370 men and 24 women were imprisoned immediately without the option of a fine and 2,333 men and 86 women were imprisoned in default of payment of a fine. These were offences of simple drunkenness or offences associated with drunkenness.

The present situation is indefensible. No one could reasonably maintain that alcoholics are suitable for imprisonment. They need care and welfare treatment, not punishment. Imprisonment is no deterrent to them. It wastes time, money and resources. We are not dealing with their problem. We are treating their symptoms by putting them away cosily in prisons to the detriment of prison officers who should not have to deal with them, of other inmates who should not have to associate with them, and of the individuals themselves who should not be in the environment and atmosphere of a prison.

Some of these people welcome prison. Many will rush out and break out the first pane of glass they see when it gets near Christmas because they want the warmth and comfort and even the companionship provided by prisons, prison officers and fellow inmates. That they should do that is a condemnation of our social service and caring and welfare system. It is wrong that such people—we could put them in the same category as vagrants who beg and sleep out—should have to rely on having a prison sentence imposed upon them to have any kind of sustenance or care during a critical and difficult period in their lives.

Having had the 1872 report, the Criminal Justice Act and the report on habitual drunken offenders, we still have only one detoxification centre with only 20 places, and that is in Leeds, not in the major areas where we have the main problem of alcoholism, such as London and Merseyside. I realise that that is not the responsibility of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, but I ask him to urge the necessity for greater resources to be provided more quickly than in the past under successive Governments to eliminate this problem. It is a scandal and it is indefensible that such people are punished rather than treated.

The same argument applies to those who beg and sleep out. We still imprison vagrants because they are vagrants and have no fixed abode. In 1975, 135 men were subjected to immediate imprisonment and 127 were imprisoned in default of payment of a fine. Again, there are not enough facilities for the homeless. There are not enough hostels or sufficient caring resources. It is not right or fair that the Home Office and the prisons should have to suffer the consequences of other Departments, whether they be local authorities or central Government Departments, defaulting on their responsibilities for certain categories of individuals. It is not appropriate that the Home Office or the prisons should assume responsibility for those individuals.

However, it is the rsponsibility of the Home Office to decriminalise the offence of soliciting for prostitution. There seems to be no reason why we should have imprisoned immediately without the option of a fine 79 women for soliciting and a further 23 for default of payment of a fine. I am not condoning the offence, but I cannot see that we achieve anything by imprisoning these people. They will not be reformed or rehabilitated. They will be punished. But is the punishment worth it? In view of the punishment that we inflict upon ourselves by having to pay the costs of all the resources that go into the punishment, is it worth it?

We must take into account that we do not catch the high-class call girl or the high-society whore who moves from one luxurious flat to another. We catch the socially inadequate, the illiterate, inarticulate and, in many cases, mentally unbalanced or handicapped girl or woman. We do not catch the successful, high-earning, high-spending prostitutes. We catch the working-class girls who are inadequate and have social problems. Such girls are punished, and punished frequently, by frequent appearances in court and frequent short periods in prison as a result.

There is no real justification for that treatment. We can certainly avoid the problems and the embarrassment which may be caused to certain men by being solicited by a woman without going to the length of imprisoning prostitutes.

There are many other non-criminal prisoners who inhabit our prisons. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North referred to maintenance defaulters. Despite the Finer Report's recommendation in 1972 that we should no longer imprison those who default on affiliation orders or maintenance payments, in 1975 we imprisoned 2,690 wife maintenance defaulters, 240 child maintenance defaulters and 434 bastardy arrears defaulters. Again, there is no justification for the imprisonment of such individuals. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, in most cases the money does not get paid. In fact, 76 per cent. of such offenders serve 80 per cent. of their sentences. Of course, some pay their maintenance and affiliation order arrears when they are in prison. But the fact that, according to the report of the Prison Department, 76 per cent. serve 80 per cent. of their sentences shows that in practice we are not very effective in ensuring that a taste of imprisonment gets the maintenance, affiliation or bastardy arrears paid.

Imprisonment means that the offender is not earning. The ex-wife or whoever it is does not receive the money due to her. There is also the possibility that a second family is involved. The man may perhaps have moved away or remarried, and there may be other children. It is to be deplored if he is not paying maintenance for his first family, but if we imprison him he will not be contributing to the upkeep and support of the second family.

Imprisonment therefore has consequences right across the board. Children have to be taken into care, wives have to be supported by social security, and all the paraphernalia of the DHSS and local authority social service departments has to rally round to help. If we look at the critical question of the amount of resources devoted to individual families, we see that the cost of imprisonment is not just the £70 or £80 a week that it costs to keep someone in prison. There is also about £100 a week to keep each child in a local authority home if it has to be taken into care. Several more pounds per week will be given to the wife in social security benefits, and she will also be paid to visit her husband in prison. An enormous amount of money is involved which could presumably have been put to a much more useful purpose.

That in itself is a reason for examining carefully whether it is necessary for individuals to be imprisoned, given all the implications and all the consequences for the prisoner's family, who are the most innocent and yet often the most punished people in this area, and the very scarce resources that are gobbled up.

In general, I think it is wrong that we imprison so many people who are clearly socially inadequate, whether they are vagrants, drunks, prostitutes or whether they are fine defaulters of one category or another—not simply those I have already mentioned. Prisons have become what they should not be, the social dustbins of our society. If we think seriously about prisons, perhaps they should be places that deter people by their awesomeness, which will punish and help to reduce the present high rate of recidivism, and not institutions of a catch-all kind.

Prisons should not be places behind whose awful walls we put people so that we need no longer know anything about them and where they will no longer prick our consciences. At present, we send inadequates to prison because it is the most convenient way of dealing with them. It is administratively convenient. They do not then become the problem of society as a whole. It is our responsibility to make sure that they do become our problem. It is too easy and too convenient for bureaucracy and for all of us—hon. Members and the public as a whole—simply to dispose of people by sending them to institutions and then forgetting about them. There are very important problems and very serious issues of principle that ought to be discussed and on which the public ought to have forced upon them the consequences of dealing with people in this way.

The individuals that we are talking about are products of and members of our society, whether we like it or not. We may be ashamed of them and we may not like what they are, but they have been created by us. We cannot simply slough off our responsibility for them by putting them behind large walls, ignoring them and forgetting all about them. The prisons reflect the society of which they are a part. If there are things wrong with the prisons—and there are many things wrong—that is a condemnation of us more than a condemnation of those who run the prisons.

There are many alternative ways of reducing the prison population. It is not just a matter of removing from prison those who ought not to be there in the first place. There is the much more revolutionary and much more dangerous method of trying to develop alternatives to prison. We have the experimental community service orders, which have been extremely successful. The rate of further offences committed by offenders who have carried out community service orders is very low, but the experiment has not been extended throughout the whole of the country, as was intended and as many of us hoped.

I know that the response of Home Office Ministers to any suggestions of alternatives to prison is that we cannot adopt them because the alternatives cost money and will require more probation officers and more resources, and that we cannot do this because capital is tied up in the prisons. Their argument is that we are not bringing down the cost of prisons by taking 4,000 people out, because we still have prisons and we still have to pay overheads.

I would argue that we will always have those costs until we find some way of significantly reducing the prison population. Unless we are imaginative and prepared to make mistakes and to take responsibility for our mistakes, we shall never have adequate alternatives, whether in terms of intermediate treatment or all the experiments being undertaken by bodies such as NACRO, helped by the Home Office.

We ought also to look at the Prison Rules, a subject that I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) will raise in greater detail later. We are talking not only about keeping people out of prison but about what conditions are like inside. The problem is not just one of overcrowding. It is the loss of dignity which people suffer then they go into prison, for no necessary reason other than the fact that we have a series of rules, standing orders and administrative circulars which do not really add up to any system of justice in our prisons.

For example, it is not really necessary to censor letters as much as is done. The explanation is always the catch-all phrase that it is necessary for the maintenance of good order and discipline, but we know that that can mean anything or nothing. It is not necessary to impose the kind of disciplinary sentences that are imposed on prisoners. There is supposed to be a maximum limit of 54 days on the amount of remission that can be lost, but that is not the maximum in practice, as we have seen with the aftermath of the Hull Prison riots. A prisoner can be given 54 days' loss of remission for one offence, 54 days for another offence and so on. Men are losing 500 or more days of remission of sentence.

Such procedures might perhaps be right and appropriate if prisoners had the ability to cross-examine or to be represented by lawyers or someone from outside the prison, but they have little ability to examine witnesses, produce evidence or appeal outside against the decisions that are reached. If we believe in natural justice, equity and fairness, these concepts must apply equally in the closed and vulnerable context of prisons, just as they apply outside. A man's dignity and worth are just as important to him in prison. In fact, it may be important to emphasise this in prison. It is punishment enough to take away a man's liberty and to remove him from his family and friends, and that he is put in a cell designed for one person but has to share it with two other people in close physical proximity. It is not necessary to go on from there and strip all his self-respect and dignity away from him, but that is what we tend, perhaps unintentionally, to do at the moment.

So far, we have had a very important and very constructive debate on prisons. They are a very important element of our society. At any one time 40,000 of our fellow citizens can be held behind locked doors, in great secrecy, where no one from outside will penetrate. They are an important ingredient of our society. Our discussions on them should be more fully and openly conducted than in the past.

I regret that it is such a long time since we last had a debate on prisons. It is important that we look at our whole prison system afresh. We need to ask what our prisons are for. What are we trying to achieve with the institution of prisons? Let us forget everything that has gone before. Are they there to deter, and do they deter? If they do, is that in itself a reason for having prisons? If they do not, is that a reason for abolishing them or minimising the number of prisoners? Are prisons there to punish or to reform and rehabilitate? What is their prime objective?

Are we being effective in achieving any of these objectives or ideals? If not, can they be more properly and more effectively achieved by other means? I am not saying that at the end of that kind of examination we would come to the comforting conclusion that there is no need for prisons. I am sure we would come to the opposite conclusion. I believe, however, that we would re-evaluate the number of people who should be imprisoned, examine the whole complexity of our prison system and decide that it was unnecessarily cumbersome.

The rate of reconviction and recidivism indicates that our prisons are not fulfilling one of the objectives that was originally intended for them. I believe that we ought to go further and look at the way in which our prisons are organised, examining, too, the regime inside the prisons and taking a fresh look at the Prison Rules to see whether they, too, conform with our desires in terms of deterrence, punishment, reform and rehabilitation, and ensure that when a man is in prison he is still treated as a human being with a right to self-respect and dignity.

I believe that this kind of examination is all the more important, not because of overcrowding, since that will probably disappear at some stage. For reasons that none of us knows, the prison population seems to have dipped again in recent months when we thought that it would continue to rise for some time to come. It will be necessary to hold the examination, if for no other reason, because of what happened at Hull and throughout the country last summer and what is likely to happen again this summer.

There is a feeling among prisoners that they are treated in ways that are unnecessary for incarceration and punishment. Prisoners have rights, and they will assert those rights. We here have a responsibility to meet every challenge and demand and to assess them objectively and rationally: but we have a further responsibility to educate public opinion. To often we do as the hon. Member for High Peak did, and that is either to pander to public opinion or to follow it. Instead, we should be leading and educating it.

There is public prejudice against prisoners, as I know to my own personal cost. However, this is such an important area that we cannot afford to allow public opinion in its prejudice to dictate what should happen. Of course, one should not be insensitive to the needs, susceptibilities and fears of the public, but we should not allow that to take us so far that we blindly accept without any argument or dispute the prejudices that were accepted here today by the hon. Member for High Peak.

We have a responsibility to defend our arguments and we have a great responsibility to have a rethink of our whole prison system, to bring the public into the discussion, to ask them for their views and to put forcibly to them the facts of the situation. I suggest, not in any sense as a glib comment, that we need a Royal Commission to look into the whole of our prison system and at the different kinds of establishment that we have. It should examine whether they are all necessary, whether they are fulfilling the needs that they are supposed to fulfil, and whether they are meeting the objectives outlined for them as institutions. It should look further at the whole regime and at prisoners' rights and the Prison Rules.

That would be a very educative process for public opinion. We could for once have a completely objective and dispassionate analysis of our whole prison system, not just in terms of weeding out those who should not be there but in an attempt to arrive at a penal system which we could all proudly defend and respect because we could then acknowledge, as we unfortunately cannot acknowledge today, that it was civilised compassionate and humane but that it nevertheless managed to reconcile those objectives with the protection of the public.

12.44 p.m.

I agree very much with the last remarks by the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk). I feel that it is of great importance that we debate the subect of our Prison Service and the whole sentencing policy within our prison system. I believe that we have started on that road already.

I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) on his choice of motion and for its wording, which I wholeheartedly support. I very much enjoyed his enlightened speech. Perhaps I may point out to the hon. Member for Ormskirk that I raised the subject of prisons on 20th December in this House, and I said then that this was a matter that ought to have far wider discussion. I am therefore grateful that we are having today's debate. I even suggested to the Prime Minister that he might start a great debate on the Prison Service as he has so successfully done on education. I hesitate to comment, however, on the proposition that we need a Royal Commission.

Most of the people in the Prison Service and the Home Office realise what has to be done but know that what is required is the will and the finance to do it.

We ought also to be grateful to Mr. Peter Evans, who wrote a series of articles in The Times in December, which I think brought very much to the fore information on the subject of overcrowding. It highlighted the present disturbing state of affairs in our prisons and demonstrated particularly the gross overcrowding. That applies particularly to Leeds and London, including Brixton, as the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells pointed out.

Since those articles there has been a wider realisation of the problems, some of which have been documented on television. In spite of the criticism of the two films that have appeared on the BBC, they were helpful in bringing home to the public the very severe problems with which those who work in the Prison Service are now faced. To end the plaudits, I congratulate the Home Secretary on allowing cameras into the prisons. In the last television documentary they went to Leeds and to other prisons. That was a step forward, for which I am personally grateful. I hope that it heralds a more enlightened approach than has existed in the Home Office hitherto.

I should like to put on record, however, the discontent felt by many prison officers at the lack of opportunity given to their local associations to respond to some of the more biased complaints levelled at them. They were particularly riled at the Hull film, and they queried with me why no Home Office spokesman appeared on it and why there was not a quicker response from the Home Office at the time.

The prison officers' image is very often wrongly represented. I know many prison officers, and I know them to be responsible, competent and compassionate people, who perform very well what is often a thankless task. Of course, there are some who do not fit that description, but the vast majority do. They are the people on the spot, who know the problems. They rarely, if ever, however, have the opportunity of giving their version of events or of correcting misleading reporting, which unfortunately happens all too often. A little public relations for the Prison Service is long overdue.

There should have been an earlier official statement on the Albany IRA riot in September, instead of our having to wait for the Howard League and Amnesty International to issue a document, which I believe has gone to almost every hon. Member. Quite a few hon. Members have asked for my comments on it. I have asked whether the official report can be published, but I gather that that will not happen. I think that the then temporary governor was faced with a very tricky situation, and that the right decision was taken. Certainly morale among the staff has improved considerably since then.

It is a fact that there are, regrettably, a few very vicious and violent men in our society who have no hesitation in killing or maiming on the slightest provocation and without any remorse. But I suspect that there are many other prisoners who, were they to be housed in less overcrowded premises, would have a much better chance of returning to society with a real possibility of not offending again.

It is these continuing conditions that affect the morale of the Prison Service. Officers see nothing in the future but a continuation of the present process. There is a desperate need for new initiatives, in both forms of punishment and the conditions in which sentences are served.

On prison sentences generally, I ask the Minister of State what action is being taken, for instance, on the eight-point submission from NACRO, some of which has been referred to today, or the proposals of the Howard League that accompanied it. What hope is there for the provision of more secure—they would have to be secure—half-way establishments for teenagers convicted of serious crimes? This point was referred to by the hon. Member for Ormskirk.

Too often teenagers have to serve their sentences in one of our older penal institutions or in mental homes, while it is openly admitted—I have had two cases of this sort in my constituency—that such places are quite unsuited to their needs. The young should surely have priority in whatever funds are available to improve the situation.

I have never been to Armley Gaol, at Leeds, but I am told that on 24th January last no fewer than 1,036 prisoners were being held in accommodation designed for about 600. That was shown vividly on television. No doubt that sort of situation occurs elsewhere. What does the Home Secretary intend to do about the gross overcrowding, particularly at Leeds? If no new prison can be built at Leeds—I gather that is now the case—is it not at least possible to extend the present building? My information is that land already owned within the prison precincts could be used for that purpose. Perhaps the Minister will refer to that matter.

In recent months I have visited Parkhurst, Albany, Camp Hill and Broad-moor. I have talked to prison governors and representatives of the Prison. Officers Association. The majority of men to whom I have spoken feel that we should look again at the recommendations in the Mountbatten Report, especially with regard to the proposal, made in 1966, for a new high security prison. I know that Mountbatten came to the conclusion that that should be in my constituency, which would have meant no fewer than four prisons there, but I do not believe that we would necessarily oppose its construction. However, if long sentences are to become even more commonplace, is it not better to have those convicted in one place—the suggestion by the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells was four places but I should be happy if we could get one, because we are talking about a prison for about 120 people—where they can lead at least tolerable lives, rather than, as at present, being moved around the seven dispersal units.

I recall vividly one such prisoner from Long Martin complaining, on television, about the upset that occurred to him every time he was moved from there to Parkhurst, or perhaps to Albany or somewhere else around the line, and the problems that it caused for those who came to visit him. They would turn up at Evesham or somewhere else and find that he had gone to the Isle of Wight. Also, prison governors feel that it would be more sensible if these prisoners were in one place.

So many of those in gaol are psycopaths, or are suffering from some form of mental incapacity that makes it very unlikely that they will ever be able to return to normal life. I understand that of 65 per cent. of those convicted of crimes of violence at Parkhurst, no less than 16 per cent. have mental disorders and 24 per cent. are psycopaths. I certainly know, from a prison visit, that out of nearly 500 in Camp Hill, which is supposed to be a training establishment but which has developed into something rather more than that, well over 200 can be classed as mentally subnormal. What hope has the governor of that establishment or his staff of being able to cope adequately with people like that, mixed in with another 300 who are of reasonable intelligence?

Is there not a crying need for a further mental institution similar to Broadmoor? Perhaps there should be several small ones. In this area there is a desperate need. Incidentally, at Broadmoor much good work is going on. I have witnessed it at first hand. It is nothing like its public image. It would be a good thing if that also could be put over to the public and if much more information could be given about what is happening there.

Then there is the very important question of staff morale. I do not think the morale was all that hot 10 years ago. I think that the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Le Marchant) was stretching matters in blaming the present Government. Morale has been going down over the last decade.

Are there not too many junior, inexperienced men in our top security gaols? I understand that over 50 per cent. have less than three years' service. The report on the escape of William Thomas Hughes, from Leicester Prison says that of 101 officers in post at the end of the year, 64, no less, had from one to five years' experience, 24 had from seven to 10 years' experience, and 11 had from 11 to 19 years' experience. It went on to comment that in the main the more junior staff were developing well.

However, it has been pointed out to me by prison officers that far too many inexperienced officers are being put into the very difficult situation of dealing with high security risk prisoners. The fact is that senior officers—far too many are leaving the service—are going to the easier open prisons. That may be right when one gets seniority, but there are probably too few experienced men about. There is a remarkably high turnover within the service. The reasons for this should be explained. Too many men, once they have finished their tour of duty, particularly at Albany, want to get away. The reasons should be ascertained. I have seen the charts.

There is one point about which there is strong feeling among prison officers in the Isle of Wight—they get no cost of living allowance. They have a good case. I suffer, living in the same place. Many of my constituents will confirm that the cost of living on the Isle of Wight is substantially higher than the cost of living on the mainland. For instance, we get no cut-price petrol. On the mainland, petrol costs 5p or 6p per gallon less. We have car ferry charges. It was estimated officially in 1962– 63 that the cost of living on the Isle of Wight was 4½ per cent. higher than on the mainland. I have a nasty feeling that the figure is substantially higher today. The officers probably have a case for a cost of living allowance.

Are we considering the possibility of introducing worker participation in the Prison Service? We are apparently doing it in the Post Office. I do not suggest that it ought to be trade union controlled, but some say that bringing prison officers more into the running of the prisons would be a good way forward.

Is the specialist training adequate? Have some of the cutbacks, certainly in budgetary control, been too severe? I personally think that they have. I know the reasons why. The Government have an enormous task. If there is to be another Government shortly, they will face just the same problem, so it it silly to make a party political issue of this problem. In the Prison Service some budgetary cuts have been too severe. The Governor of Leicester Prison has commented on that matter.

Finally, I come to the design of our new prisons. We have a newish prison, built in the 1960s—Albany—and an extension at Camp Hill. Albany is an absolute disaster, and it has been extremely costly to put right. I hate to tell this to the House, but the Camp Hill extension is now holding four to a cell in the new building. Admittedly they have the latrine facilities built in, but it seems nonsense to build a new extension to cater for no fewer than four to a a cell.

I am told that the new extension at Holloway has been disastrous. Prison governors have told me that they would far rather operate within one of the Victorian prisons where they have plenty of room and can see what is going on. The trouble with Albany is that no one can see what is going on in the four different wings. We are now spending £ l½ million to put it right.

Perhaps we should consider the Home Office architects who design prisons. Architects within the education service have something to answer for, because of the flat roofs on schools, which have cost us dear. Every roof seems to have leaked. Let us consider prison design more than has been done in the past. I do not think that there has been enough consultation with prison governors and staff before new prisons have been put in hand.

I have looked on the black side, but there are hopeful developments ahead. I am impressed by the efforts to introduce more worthwhile work into prison life. At Camp Hill and Albany there is carpentry, and there are machine shops and facilities for doing textile work. One of the great successes at Camp Hill is that chairs are being made for export to Sweden. I always thought that we bought Swedish furniture, but Camp Hill is able to sell its products to that country. That is a step forward and I congratulate those involved, the technical advisers and the civilian trainers who assist the Prison Service, on what they have done.

Has there been any trade union objection to such work, and, if so, what has been the answer?

Perhaps I should not give too much publicity to this, but as far as I know there has been no trade union objection. I do not think that there would be, because work within prison workshops creates work for outside suppliers of goods to the prison. I do not think that there would be any feeling about this. I gather that there is a more open attitude to what is happening.

I criticised it at the time, but I now welcome the sports centre at Camp Hill. I see the reason for it, and I hope that it will soon be built and be in operation.

The Prison Service has moved into horticulture at Camp Hill prison farm. I hope that there will never be a move by the service to get out of agriculture, because it provides a good outlet for men who are interested in this work. Unfortunately, most of the hospitals got out of farming some years back, but I trust that the Prison Service will not take that line.

There are fine men and fine leaders in the Prison Service. They look to as, to the Home Secretary and to the House for support and understanding of the difficult job that they have to perform and for the necessary wherewithal to enable them to do the best job that they can.

1.3 p.m.

I join in the chorus of praise for the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) in introducing this debate and giving us the opportunity to talk about the state of our prisons. The speeches this morning, with one exception to which reference has been made, have been well worth listening to, and they have come from all three parties in the House.

The most immediate crisis in prisons today is that of overcrowding, but the curious thing is that while it makes life miserable for both prison officers and prisoners it has been the greatest force in prison reform. I do not justify overcrowding. We must deal with it, and I propose to talk about it, but when one considers the introduction of parole, of suspended sentences and of community service orders, one realises that none of those reforms resulted from the pressure of prison reformers but came about because of overcrowding in prisons forcing the Home Office to find ways of keeping people out of prison. Whatever happens here today, I am not naïve enough to believe that any major reform in the next three or four years to keep people out of prison will have its genesis in this debate. On the contrary, the reform will result from pressure on places in our prisons.

It cannot be overstressed, and I make no apology for repeating, that overcrowding has the result of humiliating people and making them lose their self-respect. But it has other consequences. It means that prison officers cannot get to know prisoners as well as they ought to. It produces greater anonymity, and that in turn produces a feeling of a lack of humanity and that one is not dealing with human beings.

People are put into prison and have to perform intimate functions of the body in the presence of other prisoners who may be strangers, and probably are. That is a humiliation and a destroyer of self-respect that bodes ill for the rehabilitation of offenders, because when a man has no self-respect he has little incentive to go straight, to use a colloquialism. Destroy a man's self-respect, and he will see nothing wrong in future in living off the State, in behaving in an appalling way, in borrowing from whom he can and in stealing from whom he can. All that happens because his self-respect has gone.

Two things follow from that. One is that we should not unnecessarily destroy a person's self-respect by sending him to prison when there are other things that can be done. Secondly, if someone is in prison we should not make the prison an institution that completely destroys his self-respect.

Lest anyone thinks that he is listening to a do-gooder, I assure the House that there are prison governors who take that view. The public have a curious view about prison governors. In my experience, prison governors often take the view that the person concerned does not need to be there, that there is no good reason for his being there and that it will do the public no good by keeping him there. Prison governors appreciate the horrible consequences of overcrowding.

What worries me is that if we manage to deal with overcrowding the whole impetus for prison reform will disappear, because once there is no pressure on places there will be much greater reluctance among authorities to do much about some of these problems. Although overcrowding makes life intolerable for those inside prison, it has meant that many people are not in prison who would otherwise be there. In this odd way they have benefited from the existence of overcrowding, because they have been given suspended sentences, have been released early on parole, and so on.

As the Home Office seems optimistic that it can deal with the problem of overcrowding in the next few years, it is essential that worthwhile reforms are executed before that situation arises. We must press for the removal of overcrowding, but we must press equally hard for necessary reforms before the Government's feeling of urgency is dissipated because they think they have conquered overcrowding.

My view of the prison rebuilding programme is that as we build new prisons we should close old ones. In other words, we should not merely expand the number of places but we should replace these terrible pre-1870 prisons with modern ones where the architecture has been carefully thought out, because there is now a growing awareness among penologists that architecture in prisons has a significant effect on the atmosphere and what happens there.

I am a little disturbed to discover that the plans of the Home Office to cope with overcrowding do not involve closing many old prisons by the end of this decade. The only one that I know that is to be closed is Oxford. Perhaps it has been closed already. That is the only prison to be closed by 1980. Most of our prisons, certainly the ones containing the bulk of the prison population, are more than 100 years old. One talks about therapy for prisoners and about rehabilitating them, but one has only to look at the prisons in which they are incarcerated to realise that when these prisons were built there was no idea of rehabilitating prisoners. The prisons were simply warehouses where people could spend their time as uncomfortably as possible until they were released.

We must decide why we put people in prison. Is it as a deterrent to others? Is it because the State is exacting punishment or retribution? Is it to rehabilitate and retrain those inside? There seems to be enormous confusion.

The people who put those who have committed offences into prison are themselves a small group. The longest sentences are imposed by Her Majesty's judges. We must consider whether they are using the right guidelines. Lord Justice Lawton, himself the son of a prison governor, once said that prison was an inappropriate, useless and expensive sanction for three-quarters of the population. The Home Office White Paper in 1965 said:
"Every additional year in prison progressively unfits the prisoner for re-entry into society."
The judges, being successful members of society—

The White Paper which the hon. Gentleman has just quoted was published before the beginning of the really effective type of work programme which there now is at places such as Maidstone Prison. I think that the Home Office was referring to the fact that simply sitting in prison decayed the spirit and the soul and that a man came out worse than he was when he went in. If the man could have training and work which is effective, that position would be much improved. Does not the hon. and learned Gentleman agree?

I entirely agree that useful work in prison will prevent the deterioration of the personality of the individuals performing that work. However, to the best of my knowledge, in a prison such as Leeds not much work is going on and the work that is done does not remove the obligation upon us to ensure that people who should not go to prison are kept out.

I was talking about the judges and their training, or lack of it, for deciding when people should go to prison. I am referring not only to High Court judges and circuit judges but to recorders and deputy-circuit judges. There has been such an expansion in the judicial process that there are far more judges and part-time judges than there were. Virtually any barrister of experience who happens to be free for a week is eagerly snapped up to sit at a tribunal, and in that tribunal he sends people to prison. The barrister may have specialised in commercial matters. Even if he has specialised in crime, I am not certain that that is enough. Not all barristers taking time off for a week or two to deal with cases as deputy-circuit judges will have been to prisons and conferences dealing with the effect of prison. They will not all have talked to prison governors or people otherwise connected with the penal system.

Although there have been strides in recent years in helping the judiciary to understand the problems that prison poses, the training programmes are still woefully inadequate, and there are now sitting on the bench in a part-time capacity many people who, to the best of my knowledge, have had very little, if any, training in the philosophy of sentencing.

In an article not long ago, Louis Blom-Cooper said that the British judges had the most enormous discretion. He said that they were
"wandering in a desert of uncharted discretion."
Indeed, they have a discretion far wider than that normally granted to their Continental counterparts. We have thought that that was a good thing. We have rightly been against minimum sentences and rigidity in sentencing. But we should like to feel that the judges had a fairly common approach, so that justice was even-handed as far as possible, whatever court one entered. We should like to feel that they had a similar approach to their job and purpose.

I recently learned of a man involved in a tax fraud some years ago and tried several years later. He had worked hard all his life, including the years subsequent to the tax fraud. Eventually, a minnow in the dock compared with others, he was convicted. The judge said, although there was no one in court to report it, "I must deter other business men from committing tax frauds", and that man, in middle age, was thrown into prison, where he is now.

As the case was too dull to be reported, and it was obvious that it would not be reported, the only deterrence must be to the few acquaintances of that man. What useful purpose is being served by his being thrown into prison? It will cost more than £60 a week to keep him in prison. His family may be thrown on to social security, at further expense. The deterrence seems to me to be minimal or nil. A man who is commonly agreed to have worked hard in industry all his life is effectively destroyed.

Experienced barristers know that other judges would have imposed a suspended sentence and fine in such a case. People who practise in the courts know very well that there are such discrepancies. If three judges would send such a man to prison and 10 would not, it must be the fact that there is not a common approach to the objectives that the judiciary is supposed to have in mind.

What is required is far more training of our judges. There was a suggestion recently, I think in The Times by a law lecturer, that there should be a judges' academy. I declare an interest. In a sense I am one of those judges, being a recorder. It seems to me that we need far more training. We must consider asking judges to contemplate the consequences of sentencing in terms of the overcrowding in our prisons.

A judge does not normally think of overcrowding when he imposes a prison sentence. It is not a factor about which he is supposed to be concerned, nor is he supposed to be concerned about the fact that a family will be thrown on to social security. He is not supposed to be concerned with the social or domestic effect or the financial effect for the State. 1-lis duty is to decide whether the crime required punishment or deterrence or whether it is important for the person concerned to be kept out of circulation for the public safety.

We are reaching the time when there should at least be discussion about whether judges should bear in mind such other factors when dealing with middle-aged men who are first offenders in nonviolent offences. Since, for some people, the loss of self-respect is all important, there is an argument for shorter sentences for first offenders where the judge thinks it likely that the loss of self-respect is in itself sufficient.

In the higher courts of the land it will be found that few sentences of less than nine months are imposed. Whereas magistrates can impose small sentences, there is a tendency to take the view in the higher courts that nine months is the appropriate minimum sentence. I am not saying that smaller sentences are never given, but nine months is regarded as a lenient sentence. That means, effectively, serving six months in prison. The parole system could assist, particularly in relation to non-violent offences, by being made more flexible.

As I understand the parole system, parole cannot be granted until after serving 12 months' imprisonment. The sentence has to be minimum sentence of two years. The curious thing is that because we are using deputy-circuit judges—barristers pulled out of their chambers to sit as judges—I am not sure that all of them appreciate the position. A common sentence is 21 months. A man sentenced to 21 months serves, with one-third remission, a total of 14 months. As I understand it, he cannot seek parole because there has to be a two-year sentence in order to obtain parole. A man with a two-year sentence can be considered for parole after 12 months and can be released, while the man with a 21-month sentence has to serve 14 months and cannot be considered for parole. If I am right about that, there is an argument for abolishing 21 months as a sentence or for saying that 21 months is an appropriate sentence for the consideration of parole. It might also make some small difference to the prison population.

Why should it be necessary to have a minimum detention of 12 months for first offenders, for non-violent offences in particular, before parole can be granted? The category D offenders, prisoners who are regarded as the least dangerous, constitute 17 per cent. of the prison population. Given the present pressures, why should there not be a provision that they can have greater remission than prisoners in other categories? That seems to be worth considering. Secondly, why should there not be a lower minimum period of imprisonment before parole is considered for that category of offender? A first offender who is imprisoned for fraud for 12 or 18 months, when the indications are that he will not commit any further offences, could be released on parole at a fairly early date.

I appreciate that the argument I use is based on overcrowding, and were there no overcrowding the argument would receive even less consideration than it currently receives. On overcrowding the Home Office says that by 1980–1 it will be reduced to about 2,000 as a result of another 5,000 or so prison places being brought into existence. The Home Office bases that calculation on the prison population going up only to about 43,400. I challenge that estimate. At the moment, the prison population is well over 40,000. The Home Office figure implies that in the next three of four years the increase in the prison population will be only about another 1,000 or 1,500. I do not know how that calculation can be made. It depends on many imponderables. It depends on the atom- sphere that will influence those who sit on the bench. It will depend on the population bulge and a whole series of other factors. I would be surprised if by 1980–1 we had reached the situation that there was a shortage of only 2,000 places.

My hon. and learned Friend should be aware that the figures he is using are not quite a fair reflection. What we are talking about is the crude deficit of places, which will be 2,200. That will reduce overcrowding, in our calculation, over a period to two-thirds of what it is now. I am not trying to mislead the House. The crude deficit does not equal the actual overcrowding, because the crude deficit is based on a stable figure whereas there are peaks and troughs in the prison population.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

There ought to be more agreement on a common approach to sentencing. The Court of Appeal does a job in the sense that if sentences go through the roof it can bring them down. In my view, the job that the Court of Appeal does, while valuable, is not enough. I am not at all certain that everyone who sits, either full-time or part-time, on the bench today is fully conversant with what that court is saying—that is, when the Court of Appeal is agreed on its view—because it consists of different judges who have different views.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting the Justice Committee of Dutch Members of Parliament who are in Britain looking at our prisons. My impression was that they were horrified by the age of our prisons. They had been to Wormwood Scrubs, and it was not my impression that they were highly impressed. Apparently prisons in Holland are, on the whole, very much newer. The total prison population in Holland is 3,300. That must be a reliable figure, because I was in the room of the Minister of State when the Dutchmen told me of it. That gives it a hallowed ring of truth.

Although there are 3,300 people in Dutch prisons, there are apparently 8,000 on the waiting list. What the Dutch do with short-term prisoners is to say to them "We will not have overcrowding. We want our prisons to do a good job. You have been sentenced. Go away and carry on with your ordinary life. We shall let you know when you can serve your sentence." The system is working there. It will have its drawbacks—

It is the most deplorable possible system. It means that a man can go back and continue with the crime he was perpetrating before he was sentenced to prison, and he can earn more money to stack away before going into prison. It is a preposterous scheme.

The hon. and learned Member ought to address his remarks to the Dutch Members of Parliament, who will know to what extent they are justified. I do not say that that is a good system. I can see many disadvantages.

We have to bear in mind the state of our prisons and the fact that there is a waiting list for trials. Some trials, particularly in London, take a long time to come on. The argument that a man can go away and commit more crime if he is not immediately taken to prison must apply to all those who are on bail awaiting trial. Some of the longer fraud cases have to wait three or four years. There is, therefore, the opportunity for people to commit further offences to help their families while they are in prison. No doubt the Dutch have their own way of handling the waiting list. It may be that they think those who might behave in the way suggested are taken to prison immediately and only others have to wait. Although I see many objections to that system, it is worth examining. I admit that probably the objections to such a system would be greater than the advantages, but in our present state of desperation I do not see why everything which might be of help should not be examined.

The whole question of individual deterrent sentences ought to be examined in our efforts to keep fewer people in prison. Mr. Justice Salmon, as he then was, deterred attacks by coloured people when he sentenced youths in Notting Hill to four years' imprisonment. That was a heavy sentence but it seemed to have a substantial deterrent effect. But the force of the media was behind the judge in that instance, whereas many of the sentences that are said to be deterrent are known to no one except about half a dozen people in the court.

Prison officers should not be left out of any speech in a debate on prisons, because they, like anyone else, suffer as a result of overcrowding. Their task is not the easiest or the most pleasant in the world. Their side of the case is often not presented. One way of assisting prison officers is to make more resources available. When we cut resources in the Prison Service, it not only has an effect on prison officers' pay but it means that prisoners are often confined longer to their cells because there is no one to look after them during leisure periods. What one needs is adequate prison staff, and that means giving resources to the prisons.

I appreciate that the Government are confronted with pressure for resources from a million different directions. One gets demands from the Opposition parties. We heard this morning from the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Le Marchant). Having yesterday voted for more cuts in public expenditure, the hon. Gentleman said this morning that there must be more public expenditure on the prisons. The Opposition also demand more public expenditure on the police and the disabled. Somehow that sort of philosophy, in their view, seems to be equally consistent with urging less public public expenditure overall.

I know that when they were in Opposition Labour Members were vociferous in demanding more public expenditure for various causes, including the police and prison officers. I appreciate the difficulty that the Government have in finding those resources amidst a welter of conflicting pressures. It is a question of how high in the list of priorities the Government put the question of prisons, prison officers and prisoners.

The hon. Gentleman is asking me to hurry up—so that we can then have another speech before 4 o'clock from the hon. Member for High Peak, who has already spoken this morning. I do not know whether that is exactly an inducement for me to hasten the end of my remarks.

If the Government are to give a higher priority to expenditure on the prisons and the Prison Service, what we need is education of the public. There is no doubt that a majority of the public take the view—at any rate, when not in the jury box—that what we have to do is treat acts of crime ever more harshly. I he letters that one receives state that sentences are too low. I have a great deal of sympathy with that view in respect of crimes of violence. But if one is to have an effective programme with regard to overcrowding, one must have the approval of the population.

There are normally no votes in prisons. My experience is that most prisoners I have spoken to are Conservatives. They have a strong belief in private enterprise, and when they come to us with their problems they have very robust views of how society should operate. Many of them would like us to go back to the pre-1945 era. None the less, there are no votes in prisons. Therefore, with all the other pressures with regard to the expenditure of money, the Government have to be pushed. They must not pander to the public but must tell the public the truth. One factor in the public's mind with regard to penal policy today is that there is an absence of places where one can send a person against whom the public feel indignant. That is something about which the public ought to know.

Recent articles that I have read have raised the possible future consequences of technology with regard to the prison population, and it has been suggested that eventually there will be a system of the telemetering of prisoners by means of sensors implanted on or in the body. I have read that suggestion in legal journals. I think it is horrifying, however, that we should keep people out of prison and yet keep watch on them in that particular way. I do not think that that is a factor which can have any part in any short-term solution to the problems in our prisons.

There has also been a suggestion that people who plead guilty receive shorter sentences. That is often so. But I do not know how one can make that a statutory practice. Many grave dangers are involved. First, one does not know what the judge considers to be the proper sentence because it is hidden in his mind. How on earth someone can know whether he would get one-quarter of the sentence by pleading guilty, I do not know. One of the difficulties which has been mentioned is that such a practice would induce people who are innocent to decide to plead guilty, especially if they were assured that they would receive a suspended rather than an actual sentence.

The suspended sentence was introduced with the purpose of reducing the prison population. That may not be admitted, but many people believe that that was why it was introduced. In fact, it is believed that in a substantial percentage of cases, if the suspended sentence had not existed, the courts would have dealt with the people either by a fine or probation or some other form of non-custodial sentence. Because that sentence is available, however, it is thrown in as an additional deterrent.

The result is that, if a man is brought back before the court, the court normally feels obliged to give effect to the sentence of the previous judge. It activates that sentence. Moreover, there is a reasonable possibility that the suspended sentence will be larger than it ought to be because judges believe that it is a deterrent and it may never come into effect. The consequence is that, when the next offence is committed, the man goes to prison not only for the new offence but on a substantial sentence which might otherwise never have been imposed but which was originally imposed upon him in suspended form.

It seems to me that there should be constant pressure on those who sentence, from the lower courts upwards, to remind them of what the suspended sentence is really all about. The Court of Appeal has repeatedly made clear that one should not impose a suspended sentence unless one has come to the conclusion that a suspended sentence is justified and that, having reached that conclusion, one should then consider whether it should be suspended. That is certainly the rule, but there are many people who believe that sometimes, in addition to a fine, a suspended sentence is thrown in, so that, in effect, the result of a suspended sentence can be to increase the prison population in the end rather than the reverse. We ought constantly to be aware of that danger.

I apologise to the House for having taken so long—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—although I am not certain that my hon. Friends would agree that I have taken too long in the circumstances of today. Again, I thank the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells for giving us the opportunity of this debate.

1.41 p.m.

The hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) made several interesting points, including the immeasurably more party-political point than anything said by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Le Marchant)—that the prisons are full of Conservatives. I shall not follow that up, but I start, as the hon. and learned Gentleman started, by offering my tithe of sincere praise to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew), both for his choice of subject and for the terms in which he cast his motion. I congratulate him, in particular, on the remarkably skilful way in which he presented his motion and the scope that he managed to cover in a very short speech—short, that is, in relation to all that he had to say and the very good sense of so many of the large body of ideas that he presented.

It has emerged clearly from everything said in the debate so far that we are all agreed that prisons are really about human beings—on the whole perfectly ordinary human beings who nevertheless find themselves in an extraordinary environment and set of relationships. I believe this to be especially true of the prison officer. It is easy to see the prison officer as some sort of shadowy, faceless, almost monstrous figure of Victorian fiction. In fact, he is a perfectly ordinary human being, very much like any of us.

The average prison officer is probably in his mid-30s, a married man with two or three children, and more interested in the human and social dimensions of prison care than in the custodial side of the service to which he has to contribute. But, though ordinary people, prison officers are in an extraordinary situation, and it seems to me that by far the most serious aspect of the Hughes case, quite apart from the dreadful experiences and tragedies that befell the Moran family, was the physical injury suffered by the two prison officers, Mr. Simmonds and Mr. Sprintall. Both were most viciously attacked and seriously wounded, one having his throat cut, within a fraction of an inch of his jugular vein.

The injury to those officers highlights the considerable risks that prison officers run in the difficult job that they do on our behalf. Probably no other public servants in our community are more consistently exposed to risk of hurt than are prison officers. Even the police are, for the most part, in touch with normal law-abiding citizens, but the occupational environment of prison officers is largely that of close contact with convicted criminals—often hard, vicious and ruthless men—and to do their job properly they have constantly to stand, as it were, as the thin blue line between the hardened criminals with whom they have to assocate for most of their time and the ordinary citizen outside.

In order to fulfil that task effectively, prison officers obviously need the right sort of equipment, but they need above all public understanding and sympathy. I fear that one message that has clearly come from the debate so far is that they do not have that understanding and sympathy, and I hope that our debate today will do something to redress the balance.

I turn now to the Prison Service itself, in which the prison officer has to spend so much of his time on our behalf. The Minister of State will agree that there is at present a widespread and deepseated uneasiness about the service—an uneasiness felt both by the public and by those in the service. I feel that this is an uneasiness that has not been experienced since the mid-1960s and the spate of devastating prison escapes at that time. The House will recall that in the mid-1960s the notorious spy Blake escaped, Charles Wilson and Ronald Biggs, two of the principal train robbers, escaped, and Frank Mitchell, the so-called mad axeman, escaped from Dartmoor, all within two or three years of one another.

I believe that the problems are worse today than they were then, and I fear that the uneasiness today is as much about what is liable to happen—about what a long, hot summer in our overcrowded prisons may produce—as it is about what has actually happened in the past two or three months or the past year or two in the highly publicised prison riots.

Fundamentally, the problem that Lord Mountbatten faced in the late 1960s, when we last had a major sense of unease in the Prison Service, was a relatively simple, almost technical problem, namely, how to make old-fashioned prison buildings secure and escape-proof in modem conditions of freer and easier internal treatment, which the Victorians simply did not contemplate. In a sense, the problem that Lord Mountbatten faced was one of external control, whereas the problem now is one of internal pressures and difficulties—not the escapes but the disturbances that so shock us today. In my view one has only to state the problem in those terms to see how incomparably more serious is the situation today.

The recent disturbances at Hull and Parkhurst were symptoms of the present malaise and of problems and challenges of an order entirely different from, for example, the case of Frank Mitchell wandering off and escaping from an outside working party on Dartmoor in the mid-1960s. When the whole herd is about to stampede, the odd breakaway of earlier years looks like a pinprick. To make matters worse, with the internal features and environment that now predominate, our prisons are now full beyond the danger point that Roy Jenkins so graphically pinpointed not many months ago when he was Home Secretary.

After its rejection of the Mountbatten strategy, the current policy of the Home Office, I believe, is proving to have turned many prisons into human tinderboxes. We are simply waiting for the next spark. It is a most unpleasant and uneasy feeling, and I believe that it is felt in the Prison Service.

I come now to a controversial area of prison policy, namely, the debate about concentration versus dispersal. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross), who has direct experience of this, touched on it, as did my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells.

I am convinced that we shall not now get anything fundamentally right in the most vulnerable areas of the Prison Service in the seven dispersal prisons until the Home Office is prepared to reconsider its rejection of the Mountbatten proposals for concentrating the most dangerous prisoners in a single, separate, purpose-built, maximum security unit and is prepared to think about abandoning the present policy, namely, establishing several maximum security wings in existing prisons and spreading the bad hats round the system. It is no accident that two of the worst riots in prison history occurred in Hull and Parkhurst, where category A prisoners were included in dispersed maximum security wings.

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman's argument with interest. He rightly said that the Mountbatten proposals for concentration involved securing prisoners from the outside world. He is now suggesting the segregation of highly violent prisoners in one prison because of internal control considerations. There is a fundamental difference, and it would not be appropriate merely to reconsider the Mountbatten proposals to evolve a new policy, if that is what he is advocating.

Let me develop my argument, and the Minister can then see whether he still finds fault with it.

I wish to analyse the difference between the two systems. It cannot be overlooked that since the Mountbatten Report was published the Prison Officers' Association has consistently and repeatedly urged that dispersal should be stopped and that concentration should be adopted. Twice since the Hull riots—or so I am advised—the shadowy association representing prisoner governer grades has urged the same thing, namely, a return to the Mountbatten principle and the abandonment of dispersal.

The fact is that by a strange paradox the fears that led well-meaning but academic laymen and officials to reject the Mountbatten concentration policy have been realised and fulfilled. It was said that a single separate, purpose-built, maximum security unit would be a suffocating and inhuman "Bastille" box or cage, suitable only for animals and unfit for human containment. In truth, the reverse is likely to be the case if we concentrate resources on a purpose-built perimeter form of security containing a foolproof and breach-proof outer wall system. There can be within the perimeter a relaxed and humane environment, in easy-going purpose-built residential blocks because the perimeter is scientifically designed and foolproof.

I believe that the Mountbatten proposal arose from a visit to a Swedish prison and was intended to involve maximum security—a place from which no prisoner could ever escape. It involved the building of thick, high walls and all kinds of barriers to the outside world. Unfortunately, escapes have taken place from that prison. I do not believe that there is any prison from which men cannot escape if they have the right sort of help. Where would the hon. Gentleman put the prison that he has in mind?

The hon. Lady has made a fair point, namely, that no human construction is likely to be foolproof against breakouts by some human beings. It is impossible to make a perimeter system that is absolutely foolproof and breach-proof. However, I believe that Lord Mountbatten did not spend very much time abroad in his investigations; he spent most of his time looking at the prisons in this country. On the other hand, those who reversed his decision went overseas on a number of occasions. Lord Mountbatten proposed a viable unit in the Isle of Wight next door to the existing complex of prisons, and its basis involved an easy-going regime inside the perimeter and within a tough perimeter wall.

Let us reflect on what has happened under the allegedly more humane and reasonable dispersal policy. It has proved much too expensive and impracticable to improve perimeter security in the existing old-fashioned prisons in which category A prisoners are now dispersed. Most of those prisoners are contained in ancient buildings in town centres. It has proved impossible to develop a modern security perimeter system round those old existing prisons. The only alternative is to try to strengthen the inside of prisons and make those buildings fortresses internally. That is all that one can do with category A prisoners, namely, to reinforce the system inside. One has to build cell units and living accommodation into that fortress. But that is even more inhumane than anything thought of before.

Attempts to go in for these control units in internal fortresses were found to be unacceptable, and where this system was developed it was not fully used. It involves locking up human beings like dogs in a kennel. We now have the worst of all possible words, namely, category A prisoners dispersed throughout ordinary prisons. Because it has not proved possible to build a secure perimeter system by locking up prisoners in specially secure units inside the prison it has been necessary to restrain them by strict regimentation, daily control and a regime of surveillance. This necessarily has had to be imposed on all the other prisoners who share the same prisons with category A prisoners. Those other prisoners must participate in the strict surveillance that was meant for the most dangerous prisoners.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that at Parkhurst, which experienced escapes only last year, a new perimeter wall is being built at a cost of well over £1 million.

That shows that it would have been better to have followed the Mountbatten proposal of a purpose-built prison. At present there is a mix of category A prisoners with prisoners in less dangerous grades, and this leads to a great deal of disaffection. The general run of prisoners are treated as though they are worse than they are. They lose all incentive to improve their lot and to do better for themselves. The prison officers are forced back to nineteenth century rôles involving their becoming primitive turnkeys, and personal relationships suffer because those officials act almost as dogs. They have to keep an eye on the category A prisoners because there is no other way of being certain that they will not break out. As the outstanding penologist Dr. John Bolt—who is, I hasten to add, a Welshman—said in a recent issue of Justice of the Peace.

"The prison officer had been steadily evolving from warder-turnkey to social worker, until the clock was suddenly put back by the incomplete implementation of the Mountbatten report. The dead hand of security precautions is blighting a dozen prisons."
That is the truth of the matter. That is why so many outbreaks have occurred, and we feel that even more outbreaks will occur.

The whole system of dispersing category A prisoners involves close surveillance and sinister shadowing to see that they do not escape. This obviously has a great effect on the whole prison population, of whatever category, in that prison. I believe that we have reached the end of the road in prison policy and that if something is not done before the end of this summer we shall have further outbreaks and further conflagration.

I know that this problem of concentration versus dispersal occupies one part of the wide prison spectrum, but after all it affects only a relatively small number of prisons. There are only seven dispersal prisons in the whole system. We should keep the matter in perspective. There are other parts of the Prison Service and spectrum where there is every scope and hope for better things in the future. Here, I disagree with the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West because I believe that hopes are high and that there is a light on the horizon. If the prison population had increased on the same scale as the increase in violent and other indictable crimes in the last five years or more it would probably be 10,000 higher than it is today.

Mr. Hugh Klare, in a remarkable book, "People in Prison" published in 1972, said that we should have between 45,000 and 50,000 prisoners by 1975. Curiously enough, the number has tailed off, despite the continuing upward trend in indictable offences. This is because measures have been taken already which are beginning to enable the imposition of shorter sentences and alternative forms of punishment. That is something to cheer us up, because the figures could have been worse, although they are pretty bad today.

It is a terrifying thought that if we take the prison population as a ratio of the number of male adults in our society, one in 300 is in prison. That is a staggering proportion. We have to pursue the alternatives that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells so strikingly and effectively suggested. One of those was shorter sentences, as an important and practical alternative to the present sentencing policy. Perhaps we need some sort of tariff, because the first 12 or 18 months in prison is everything, and there is often not much need to go beyond that. My hon. and learned Friend also suggested mixed sentences and this was echoed by a number of other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk). That idea is that someone spends a short time of his sentence in prison first and is then released for the remaining period, his sentence being suspended. That is extremely interesting and worth while.

Something more could be done about excluding certain categories from prison, for example, alcoholics. When I was at the Department of Health and Social Security I was disappointed when we were not able to go ahead with the detoxification units. Much of the trouble came from the hospital service. The consultants did not want to give up scarce hospital resources to deal with alcoholics. Prison is not the place for them. There must be an alternative way found for dealing with the people who are already punished enough through being alcoholics.

More should be said and done to promote the scope of the probation service. That is one of the most flexible, practical and constructive alternatives, in terms of helping a man to steer clear of imprisonment and giving him hope for the future. If there were a reallocation of resources, I hope that as much would be spent on the probation service as on the construction of new prisons.

The dispersal prison is blighted by the regime necessary for category A prisoners. But outside that, with prisoners responding to their treatment and being of good conduct, much more could be done to develop a system of training and rehabilitation. In that way some of them, not just lifers, would end up in open prisons. There could be a progression to better conditions for prisoners who respond, so that many more would go into open prisons at the end of the last year of their sentences and not just lifers who need rehabilitation or preparation for discharge.

The Home Office—perhaps it is the innate conservatism in the Home Office rather than the prison that is responsible—has been slow in developing some of the alternatives to prison which experts and laymen alike have been advocating and describing effectively for a number of years. Hugh Klare, in 1972, advocated a number of alternatives to prison. But very little has been done. I cannot say that nothing has been done, because the prison population would have been much higher today if alternatives had not been developed.

I make no apology for having highlighted dispersal as the growing issue that we have to face, because of what is likely to happen in the next few months, particularly in the summer, when the Prison Service is most vulnerable and easily hit. If there is a conflagration this summer with IRA prisoners, lifers, and long-term prisoners, it will be precisely due to the breakdown in the human relationships in prison.

Prison is nothing if it is not concerned with the relationship between the prisoner and the prison officer. It is based on a compromise between the two. The relationship may have broken down because of the intolerable requirements put on prison officers in keeping surveillance on and looking after dangerous prisoners. If there is another bust-up, as so often happens it will be the poor old prison officer who carries the can. Responsibility always seems to seep down the hierarchy and not up when there is an inquiry. If trouble comes it will be the fault not of the prison officers but of the policy and strategy imposed upon them by specialists, officers, civil servants, and even Members of Parliament.

We must be careful that we keep our eyes open and insist upon the Government carefully reviewing the implications of dispersal on conditions in prisons.

2.07 p.m.

I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) on introducing a subject which occupies many of our minds and the minds of prisoners and the general public. The hon. and learned Member has performed a useful service by highlighting, in a calm manner, the problems of being a prisoner and a prison warder. The way he has introduced the subject and highlighted the different points is to his credit.

The hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Le Marchant) quoted some figures, at which point I intervened. The figures he gave were correct. He quoted from The Guardian of 14th January 1976, which pointed out that the number of people engaged in the private security forces was more than twice the number of people in the police forces. If he had read the article carefully, he would have seen that the security industry estimates that its total turnover is running at about £150 million, with a work force of 220,000. On those figures, every member of the work force received less than £700 per annum. The figures are most suspect. While the information given by the hon. Member for High Peak was correct, we should look at these things to make sure that what the newspapers say is in accordance with the facts.

I agree with what the hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) said about alcoholics and drunks. On Tuesday of this week I had the privilege of visiting Wandsworth Prison for three hours with my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox). We spent that time with the governor, the deputy governers and the prison warders. One of the points they made was that in thousands of cases the prisons today are being used to sober up drunks and to give them a bath and clean them. After 14 days they are discharged, and they usually return in a month's time.

It was suggested to me and to my colleagues that some other system should be found for dealing with drunks. The governor and his colleagues suggested State farms. Some of our open prisons have large farming interests. I see nothing wrong with that. To keep a drunk in prison at a cost of nearly £80 a week is a waste of public money.

I wish to pay a tribute which has been paid by many hon. Members. We are concerned with the welfare of the prisoners, but if we consider a prison such as—

I am sure all hon. Members agree that something urgent and immediate should be done about alcoholics. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that they should be compelled to go to a statutory health centre? Why should not people who can afford to pay when they are there be compelled to pay for their own cure? Such centres would not be prisons. They would be ordinary clinics. When there, those who could afford to pay would pay. The whole of the alcoholic population could then be taken out of the prisons, thereby releasing space.

The hon. and learned Gentleman has made a valid point. There is no doubt that alcoholics sometimes can be rehabilitated in that way, but there should also be a little more addiction to hard work. If we teach people to do something useful, they will not be so inclined to go on the bottle every five minutes.

I wish to talk particularly about Wandsworth and Wandsworth Prison. The prison was built in 1851. It houses over 1,200 prisoners. When it was built, it housed 960. Last Christmas, it had over 1,400 inmates. One therefore can appreciate the problem of overcrowding in prisons like Wandsworth. One can imagine the problem for the governor, the deputy-governors and the prison warders—who are understaffed—in trying to maintain order and discipline.

Wandsworth has more than its fair share of category A prisoners. It also contains some well-know Irish terrorists. They are all recidivists. That means that the whole of the prison population in Wandsworth has been in prison before. It is a very confined prison which cannot be extended. Despite this problem, however, Wandsworth has a fine record of work among the working staff, the prison warders, prison officers and so on in connection with its workshops. The laundry, dry cleaning, leatherwork and woodwork departments have all shown a fair profit in the last three years. For that we must give credit to the staff who work in the prison, from the warders to those who teach in it. If we want people to do an unpleasant job, we must ensure that it is properly paid for.

Over 300 of the 426 staff at the prison live in Wandsworth. The largest proportion of them live in my constituency with their families, and they come to see me about their problems.

An important consideration which has upset prison governors is that when they leave the service they have to find a place in which to live, because as prison governors they are compelled by legislation to live in their prisons. To some extent this is the fault of the present Government, because under the Finance Act 1974 a prison governor cannot get tax relief on the interest he pays in respect of the house which he buys when he retires. Therefore, prudent people who want somewhere to live when they retire from the Prison Service are handicapped because they cannot afford the repayments on a mortgage. The Governor of Wandsworth Prison is due to retire in four or five years. This problem affects the highest grade in the Prison Service.

I wish to deal with the question of what are called the governor grades. There are 58 governor grades in London, and eight of them are at Wandsworth Prison. In 1974 they asked to be treated in the same way as other civil servants and to be given London weighting. Of the 426 employees at Wandsworth Prison, only eight do not receive London weighting, and they are the governor grades. They have been trying for the last almost three years to get this matter settled amicably, but they can make no progress.

In view of the responsibility of and the work done by such people as governors and governor grades in prison, we should be a little more co-operative in ensuring that mistakes like this do not recur. [Interruption.] I apologise to hon. Members, but I have a very sort throat. It is an effort for me to make this speech, but I promised on Tuesday that I would make it.

It is not easy for the officer grades in prisons to put their case. Therefore, I make a plea to my hon. Friend the Minister to see the Chancellor of the Exchequer and ascertain whether anomalies of this sort can be cleared up in the next Budget. We must play fair with the people who operate the Prison Service. We incarcerate prisoners in prison, but we also incarcerate the staff who have to operate them. Members of the Prison Service are living with criminals practically all the time. In effect, they mix only with criminals. The Minister should take that into account in any negotiations which take place on the emoluments and conditions of these people.

I talked with all branches and all ranks at Wandsworth. They are the most devoted prison officers I have seen, and I thank them publicly for the work they do in trying to rehabilitate the people in Wandsworth Prison. But it is not easy for them. Some of their quarters are 100 years old. The Home Office regulations lay down that such work as building and repair work should be put out to subcontract. I was given examples at Wandsworth only this week of sub-contractors going bankrupt and work being left half done, and it stays like that for months.

I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to look into these matters. If he had a council flat and was confronted with similar problems, he would be in touch with the council housing committee straight away. It is difficult for officers of the Prison Service to get work done if a contractor cannot do it. The prison staff have their wives and children to think of. They are vulnerable, particularly in places like Wandsworth. It is our duty to do as much as we can for people in the Prison Service and to ensure that they have a fair crack of the whip.

The governor and governor grades were not resentful, but they told me that to some extent Wandsworth Prison is the dustbin of the Prison Service. If a governor does not like somebody, or if somebody is causing trouble, he can get that person posted to Wandsworth. There are many malcontents in Wandsworth Prison. It houses some of the top crooks, some of the worst category A prisoners, and Irish terrorists.

I make a plea this afternoon that the Prison Service and the governor grades must be considered as much as the prisoners.

2.20 p.m.

I support everything that has been said by the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Perry) about the Prison Service. I have spent 25 years in after-care work, helping to start hostels and working with ex-offenders through NACRO and Stonham. We have much to do in this field, but it can be done at small expense. It would be possible to take people out of prison without having to spend a vast sum of money.

Having worked closely with the Prison Department and the Home Office for many years it would be churlish of me not to pay tribute to their efforts. Of course, for many of us the work of rehabilitation is not going fast enough. One must bear in mind the old saying that one gets what one is prepared to pay for. Within the limited resources that have been available it is totally remarkable that so many hostels—grant-aided through the Home Office—and other alternatives to imprisonment are emerging. It may be that they are emerging too slowly, but in view of the limited funds available there is something good to be said about those two Departments.

Those of us who have been involved in penal reform and after-care work for many years are labelled by some as do-gooders. That is sometimes meant in a complimentary way, but as a rule it is intended to be derogatory. I have no objection to being called a do-gooder. There are do-gooders and do-gooders. Some of us have a balance of common sense and are prepared to do this particularly difficult work despite the accusations that are made by some members of the community that we want to let out all the crooks and gangsters. That is just not so.

As Vice-Chairman of NACRO I have seen a welter of people, men and women of good will emerging from all sections of the community, who are anxious to see a radical change in the way that we look upon imprisonment in this country. In recent months the most forceful statements about the problems of prison overcrowding have come not from penal reform organisations but from prison governors and, indeed, from the Prison Service itself. It is worth quoting a speech made last December by Mr. Eric Wright, who is the Director General of the Prison Department. He told the annual general meeting of the Institute for the Study and Treatment of Delinquency:
"Overcrowding occurs primarily in our large local prisons. As you know, most of these prisons were built in the Victorian era, or even earlier. Despite the refurbishing we have been able to do, the conditions in these ancient prisons with their appalling sanitary arrangements must be described as barely tolerable."
That was an understatement. He added:
"There are about 5,000 prisoners who live three in a cell and about 11,000 who live two in a cell. And many of them are locked up for 20 or more hours a day. In human terms such overcrowding is distressing and there is nobody in the prison service, from the Minister to the newest prison officer, who is not aware that a very serious price is paid for it. Prisoners pay for it in terms of lack of privacy and the staff pay the price in terms of increased stress and strain in their daily work and in the erosion of tolerant relationships between them and the prisoners, which are essential for the relaxed control of a prison."
I recently had the pleasure of addressing a conference of the Prison and Borstal Governors Branch of the Society of Civil Servants. The governors' concern about the present position was set out clearly in their recent cogent memorandum to the Chief Inspector of the Prison Service on the subject of the Hull riot. The memorandum concludes with seven sensible recommendations. The fourth recommendation is:
"We recommend urgent action to reduce the present prison population."
Whilst I strongly support that view, I am under no illusions about the prospects of action to develop alternatives to prison. The unavoidable reality is that in the short run any proposals involving large-scale public expenditure are clearly out of the question. Even if we leave aside the matter of finance, any major reduction in the prison population would require a degree of political courage and far-sightedness in penal policy that no Administration in recent years have shown any sign of developing.

In the light of that depressing picture, I want to look at a number of measures for reducing the prison population that might be achievable in the short term, and then to examine the long-term possibilities that depend on either the availability of substantial resources or a major movement of political will, or, in some cases, both.

I first refer to the short-term possibilities. One immediate possibility is the scaling down of the maximum prison sentences that can be imposed for certain minor offences. The James Report recommended abolishing jury trial for thefts of not more than £20, and also proposed that the maximum penalty for such petty thefts should be reduced to three months' imprisonment. When the Government introduced the Criminal Law Bill last September, the Bill contained these recommendations of the James Committee. However, following pressure from the House of Lords the Government have now announced that they do not propose to restrict the right to jury trial to small thefts. However, there is still a strong case for reducing the maximum penalty to three months' imprisonment. Many people who are experienced in these matters have expressed the view that the first three months in prison is the most effective period. This is a moderate and sensible suggestion, if not particularly radical, and I throw it out for consideration.

In the short term it would be impractical to extend the parole system to prisoners serving sentences of less than 18 months, not least because of the problem of providing probation service manpower to supervise a suddenly increased number of new parolees. It would be practical to increase remission for short-term prisoners from the present one-third of the sentence to half. If half remission were introduced for prisoners serving sentences of 18 months or less it would reduce the daily prison population by about 3,000. Even more important, it would have a particular impact on the local prisons, where overcrowding is worst. Obviously, if the courts increase the sentences this proposal would be seriously damaged.

As an alternative to a simple increase in remission, we could consider a conditional release system such as that operated in Northern Ireland. There, all fixed-term prisoners are released at half sentence, but, except for prisoners serving one year or less, this release is conditional. So, if an ex-prisoner is convicted of an imprisonable offence during the remitted period of his sentence he is liable to serve all or part of the balance of his sentence in addition to whatever other penalty the court imposes for the new offence.

Also in the short term, we might consider removing or restricting the power to imprison certain categories of people for whom imprisonment seems particularly pointless. For example, in 1975 2,890 men were imprisoned for defaulting on the payment of maintenance. Studies have shown that the men who go to prison for maintenance default are frequently socially incompetent, unstable and poor, and that imprisonment rarely results in getting any money out of them.

In 1975, over three-quarters of in-imprisoned maintenance defaulters served over 80 per cent. of their sentences. Since they do not pay up, their families are no better off. The State simply adds the cost of maintaining the husband for five or six weeks to the cost of its continuing support of the family.

The Finer Committee on One-Parent Families recommended the abolition of imprisonment for maintenance defaulters. It called imprisoning individual defaulters an
"essay in economic and social futility."
It also found to be unsustainable the notion that the threat of prison strengthens the disposition to maintain dependence among the population at large.

On this valuable point about maintenance defaulters not being sent to prison, with which I am sure many of us agree, would not a reasonable alternative be for them to undergo compulsory community service in their local areas?

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for that intervention. That could well be so. Indeed, there is considerable success in the experimental schemes of community service now going on. I think that the schemes will be extended as soon as resources are available. They are limited now, but I believe that even this year there has been a substantial increase in community service arrangements throughout the country. That would be a welcome alternative to some of the difficulties that we are now experiencing.

A much more complicated question is that of imprisonment for fine default. As long ago as 1970 the Wootton Committee on Non-Custodial and Semi-Custodial Penalties described the number of people imprisoned for not paying fines as "disturbingly high". Since then the numbers have increased substantially, reaching an estimated figure, last year, of 13,500.

The Wootton Committee said that it was not satisfied that magistrates' courts were adequately equipped to carry out the thorough investigation of means that the law requires before a fine defaulter is commmitted to prison and that it was pointless to fine destitute offenders, such as vagrants, alcoholics and beggars, and then to imprison them for failure to pay the fine.

Three members of the Wootton Committee advocated that imprisonment for non-payment of fines, as such, should be abolished, but that instead it should be a criminal offence for someone persistently to refuse or neglect to pay a fine when he had the means to do so. If that were done, it would mean that all the elements of that definition would have to be proved in court in the same way as any other criminal charge. That might help to reduce the number of short-term fine defaulters cluttering up the prisons without removing the sanction of imprisonment for those who are able to afford the fine but persistently refuse to pay up.

Perhaps we can look at the way that we deal with both fine and maintenance defaulters when the Criminal Law Bill reaches its Committee stage in the House of Commons later this year.

One cause of particular public concern is the 4,000 young people under 17 who are remanded in custody every year to await trial in adult prisons and remand centres. Ideally, no juvenile would ever be remanded to an adult Prison Department establishment, but in practice we all know that will not come about until a national network of secure remand accommodation for juveniles is available to local authorities.

In the short term, though, the Government could use their power under the Children Act 1975 to define criteria for the use of certificates of unruliness. I have already asked the Minister about that matter. Among other things, the Government might consider making it impossible to grant a certificate of unruliness except after a hearing at which the young person is legally represented, unless, of course, he has refused representation. It seems strange that a court is not allowed to send an unrepresented juvenile to a junior detention centre for what is now, in practice, a six-week term but that there is no such restriction on remanding or committing a young person to a prison or remand centre.

There is widespread genuine concern about the problem of children in prison—concern that is felt from the left wing of the Labour Party to the right wing of the Conservative Party—and any reasonable measure attempting to tackle this problem would have great sympathy and support from all sides.

Even though we are living in a time of restricted resources, in my view this might be an appropriate time for the Government to make small amounts of finance available for one or two pilot experiments—experiments which, if successful, might be extended in future years when more financial resources become available.

One appropriate area for experiment would be work with offenders in conjunction with deferment of sentence. I have in mind a programme that would be run by the probation service, which would normally last for about three months and would include personal counselling, job or educational guidance, and help with accommodation. For maximum impact such a programme could be concentrated on offenders for whom the court has a custodial sentence in mind, but if the offender co-operates with the probation service during a short period of intensive supervision and help the court could impose a lesser penalty when he comes back before it. I know that at least a couple of probation areas are interested in giving this idea a try, and, even at a time of economic restraint, I would urge the Home Secretary to make available the necessary funds for a pilot scheme.

In dicussing long-term possibilities we can consider a number of ideas that are impracticable in the short term because they would require a considerable input of resources. One of the most frustrating things is that the necessary resources in fact exist but are being spent in the wrong way. Yet redirecting resources in the short term is far from easy.

Take, for example, the problem of the habitual drunken offender. In 1975 104,000 people were convicted of drunkenness offences, resulting in nearly 3,000 prison receptions, mainly for nonpayment of fines. The time of the police, the courts and the Prison Service, and the £78 a week spent on keeping each of these people in prison represent an appalling and tragic misuse of resources. Successive Home Secretaries have agreed that prison sentences are unsuitable for habitual drunkards and have admitted that far too many alcoholics are in prison for want of alternatives.

In 1971, the Home Office working party on habitual drunken offenders recommended in its report that the police should take drunks to detoxification centres, where they would be dried out, and medical and social investigations would be carried out. To stand a chance of real long-term success, such centres need to be supported by a network of small hostels and group homes providing long-term support for recovered alcoholics.

I have tabled a Question, which the Secretary of State is due to answer shortly, and I wonder whether, in view of the restricted resources that are available, the Minister will consider using the money that has accumulated in the compensation fund to which contributions have been made by licensing authorities and licensees. That compensation fund is no longer used, although there are many millions of pounds in it. I shall look forward to hearing from the Secretary of State in a week or two how much money there is in the fund and how the Secretary of State proposes to undo this locked door to use the money contributed by licensees for helping those who have become alcoholics.

I am 10th to continue with a number of subjects that I should like to mention, because I see that hon. Members are getting very itchy. Although I have sat here since 11 o'clock this morning, and make a habit of enjoying the rather relaxed atmosphere in the House on a Friday, I think that some of my suggestions should wait until the next opportunity that we have for debating this subject.

My main point, which has been made by a number of speakers in a most splendid debate, is that with a little imagination and not necessarily large resources a great deal more could be done to take out of the prison system those people for whom there is no need, from the public or any other point of view, for them to be locked away in secure accommodation.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) referred to the fact that he has been here since 11 o'clock. A number of other hon. Members have equally been here for that period, it is most unusual to make an appeal from the Chair for brief speeches on a Friday, but a number of hon. Members who have been here throughout the debate still wish to take part, and the Minister wishes to begin his winding-up speech at 3.30 p.m., so we have a very limited time left. It is up to hon. Members themselves to decide how they allocate that time.

2.44 p.m.

As one who has sat here since 11 o'clock, I wish to add my congratulations to those that every other speaker has given to the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew). It has been a very good debate, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) has said. We should be glad that we have these opportunities on Fridays to debate subjects that are not normally given time by the official Opposition or the Government, perhaps for obvious reasons.

Since the end of the last war we have made an enormous amount of social progress in health and social services and in the way we look after the disabled, the elderly, unsupported mothers, one-parent families and so on, but we have not made much progress in prison reform. It is not popular and is not a good subject on which to campaign. I shall probably receive letters in the next week or two suggesting that we want to let all these evil-doers out on the general public and claiming that we want to featherbed them and make prisons like hotels so that people will want to go to prison. That is not what we are saying. If we want to get results from the resources that are available, we need to get out of prison the people who should not be there.

We need to improve conditions, because bad conditions for prisoners make for bad conditions for prison officers. As I told the Home Secretary at Question Time recently, these two things interact together. If prisoners are kept in appalling conditions, as is the case in many of our overcrowded prisons today, any amelioration will reflect on the circumstances and conditions of prison officers too.

We need to look at the experience of Sweden and Holland, which have introduced very considerable penal reforms. While there was some cynicism from the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) when my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) referred to the system in Holland, in Holland long prison sentences have become a thing of the past. The Dutch believe that if a prisoner serves a year in prison that is a long sentence, but their crime rate has not increased. We could well adopt other changes that have come into force in Holland, and I hope to mention some of them later if I have time.

Somehow we have to get the knack of carrying the public with us on the subject of penal reform. One of the most objectionable features of the old Victorian prisons, which are mostly for male prisoners, is the appalling lack of privacy. I saw these terrible conditions and the lack of private toilet facilities for prisoners when I visited Strangeways, Durham, Wakefield and other prisons, where the situation is appalling and degrading. It does not contribute anything to the rehabilitation of prisoners, which is presumably why prisoners are in prison. The lack of privacy and the stench, both in warm weather and in cold, is abominable. Conditions such as these can serve only to brutalise prisoners and staff.

The aim of the prison system is said to be one of constructive training. To quote,
"The limitations imposed by the character of the prisoners themselves, by the length of their sentences and by the resources available of staff and buildings, vary from one type of prison to another and may in some cases be severe."
That is a quotation from evidence given to the Select Committee on Estimates in 1966.

The men's prisons provide formidable difficulties I do not support the suggestion of the hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) that we should set up an Alcatraz in Britain. That would create such appalling and abominable conditions inside the prison for the men and staff that there would be very great difficulties. I do not think that America would want to build another Alcatraz. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will resist the temptation to follow that line of argument.

Certainly, much needs to be done. In 1971 the Bishop of Durham, a city that has a gaol, speaking in the other place in a debate on long-term sentences, said that what we did in our prisons must reflect our moral evaluation of human personality as well as our opposition to crime. He said:
"People are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. They are sent to prison for restoration."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17th February 1971; Vol. 315 c. 596]
He called for more parole for prisoners, more imaginative pre-release schemes for long-term prisoners, a hostel where men could meet their wives to prevent the break-up of their marriages, and centres where much more open discussion could take place between judges, lawyers, prison officers and others interested in penal reform. This seems to be a very sensible suggestion.

At present, prison officers have to spend about 25 per cent. of their time, in gaols like Strangeways, locking or unlocking doors to shepherd prisoners from one part of the prison to another, and locking and unlocking gates whenever the prisoners move to the workshops, to recreation areas or for meals. Very little time and energy is left for the rehabilitation and restoration of offenders. In bad physical conditions it is almost impossible for this to be done.

Prison staff resent their bad working conditions considerably. When we went to Manchester Prison, the Secretary of the Prison Officers' Association told us of the old-fashioned toilets for the 240 officers in the prison. If they had to sleep on duty their accommodation was in the old Gate Lodge, which did not have even Marley tiles on the floor. They had had hot water there for only a couple of months. In other parts of the prison, sleeping rooms were cells. There was not enough furniture and there were no curtains. The heat was sometimes unbearable because the prison was centrally heated and the windows could not be opened in the summer. The officers did not even have a cloakroom which was worthy of the name. They had about 40 lockers.

In the decade which has passed since that visit, improvements have been made. There has been an improvement in accommodation for staff. The toilets and furnishings are better, and so are the rooms. But, of course, the bad conditions which have obtained in our prisons from time immemorial have never aided recruitment, and so the Prison Service has been understaffed in almost every category. Therefore, if we expect to keep men in these conditions for long periods we have to do something about the degrading and dispiriting nature of those conditions.

We have, however, been very slow in using the resources that Parliament has voted for the Prison Service even to remove some of the most glaring indecencies of the prison system. Blundeston, Bristol and Onley Prisons have proper lavatories which have been provided since the prisons were built. Coldingley and Long Lartin have electronic locking ands unlocking facilities providing access to the lavatories, and at Channings Wood, Northeye, Camp Hill and Ranby prisoners can have access to lavatories during the night. But this is only a small proportion of the prison system that has reasonable conditions in this regard.

We should also bear in mind that many of the old prisons have totally inadequate exercise facilities. I have seen hundreds of men taking their 20-minute exercise periods in the morning and afternoon walking round in circles in a tiny yard. That must make men feel that at some time the top must blow. It does, and we should not be surprised that it does when men are kept in these conditions for a long time.

The workshop facilities in many of the old prisons have been very inadequate. There has been some improvement since the reorganisation of prison industries, but if the conditions are all bad little can be done to give the prisoners some incentive to train for the future when, hopefully, they leave prison and earn their own living.

Many of the antiquated jobs, like making rope and doing blacksmith's work, which were done in some of the old prisons have gone, but there are still about 2,000 men in prison sewing mailbags by hand. This has not disappeared. When will it go? Does the Minister feel that this provides any rehabilitation or restoration for prisoners? How does it equip them to do any sort of job after discharge from prison?

We were told 10 years ago that the prison building programme was supposed to relieve overcrowding so that no prisoners would have to sleep two or three in a cell intended for one. We were also told that Oxford Prison would be given up in accordance with an undertaking given to the local authority many years ago and that Dartmoor Prison would be closed. It was decided in 1960 after a public inquiry that neither the present prison nor the site was suitable for retention. Under the programme, Holloway Prison was to have been emptied and the site developed as a remand establishment to serve London and the Home Counties.

None of those aims has been realised. Oxford and Dartmoor are still in use. Holloway is being rebuilt at enormous cost as the main prison for women. Many of us were very concerned that the recommendation that the whole question of building a prison for women should be looked at was not taken up. Fortunately, there are far fewer women prisoners. Women are more law-abiding than the male section of the population.

Some women are serving long sentences. In 1975 two were serving sentences of more than 10 years, excluding life, and 28 were serving life imprisonment. Most women are imprisoned, however, because they are alcoholics, prostitutes, drug addicts or shoplifters. Much has been said about alcoholics. This applies equally to men as to women. Hon. Members have referred to the nonsense of putting prostitutes in prison. Prison does not reform or change them. Instead, we must look at the reasons why people become alcoholics and why women turn to prostitution as a means of earning a living.

It is not enough to throw alcoholics into a drying-out centre and then send them out into the world hoping that they will stay dried out. If the psychological physical conditions that drove them to alcoholism or prostitution in the first place remain, they will go back to the same activities afterwards.

We must bear in mind that when a father goes into prison and leaves his family for long periods, the effect on the family is disruptive and unsettling for his wife and children. Unless another woman can take over the care of the family, the family usually collapses. Children taken into care by the local authority end up usually in children's homes run by the community or by voluntary organisations, and here lie the roots of fresh delinquency and more disturbance. A child comes under the supervision of one set of adults after another, surrounded by different children at every move, and this is a contributory factor to the increase in delinquency leading to the crime we see in our society today.

Fewer women commit offences, but if a woman under the age of 40 is put in prison the chances are that she has children. The effect on her family is serious. This is probably the strongest reason for saying that we could probably do with only about 30 or 40 prison places for women in the country as a whole. All the other women should be out of prison and should be looked after and helped in different ways, within the community.

Even if the women are working in prison, what do they do? The main job in Hollowoy is to keep the rest of the Prison Service supplied with jam. There is nothing else more constructive for them to do. I believe that they produce about 200 lb. of jam a year. They do a certain amount of toy-making, making soft furnishings and dressmaking, and all the usual things that are regarded as feminine skills, and the domestic work around the prison. But that is not very exciting or stimulating. It does not give them any new vistas or equip them for life outside the prison. Therefore, my hon. Friend the Minister could, more or less at a stroke, reduce the prison population and reduce the cost of maintaining these large numbers of women in prison.

Some pregnant women get sent to prison. Although ante-natal and postnatal care is provided in Holloway, the fact that the babies are born in the shadow of prison and then taken away from the mother when they are about 18 months old must have a disastrous effect on the babies. A baby of 18 months is very well aware of what is going on and how its surroundings change. It must also have an appalling effect on the mother.

The babies go to grannies, if they have grannies, but they are also put into local authority care, community homes and so on, if there is no family to look after them. For the normal woman, the day when her child leaves the mother-and-baby unit must be a traumatic experience, and for highly disturbed women it must be utterly disastrous.

That brings me to the major reason why I believe that riots and disturbances occur in prisons. If the prison system is to be effective, it has to be both humane and efficient. I suppose that I carry everyone with me when I say that. If efficiency and effectivenes are to be measured by the rehabilitation achieved and by the number of men and women who acquire dignity and sufficient confidence in their ability to resist the temptation to break the law again, we have a long way to go.

Some improvements have been made. The military regime is gradually disappearing, and I think that there is more understanding of the emotional and physical needs of prisoners. But much more needs to be done. Prisoners must be able to keep their contacts with their families. If they live cheek by jowl with a lot of other men, seeing their wives on very brief visits in rooms where they are surrounded by lots of other prisoners with their wives and visitors, all trying to talk and all overseen by prison officers, there is no opportunity for any private conversation. They cannot even have a row to clear the air if they want to.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take on board what the Select Committee advised and recommended very strongly 10 years ago and which has been introduced into every progressive penal system in every European country that he can name, and what has been put forward by many voluntary bodies interested in penal reform—that is, the possibility of proper family contacts in privacy. I hope that some experimentation will be carried out so that this can be done for long-term prisoners to start with.

It is absolutely inhuman and inhumane to deny a prisoner the contact and affection of his wife and family. Whether she is his legal wife is not important. The same goes for long-term women prisoners. They should be able to maintain the normal human relationships, so that the abnormal lives that they live in prison as long-term prisoners and the appalling pressures that they suffer can be relieved.

There will be those who say "Why should they have these facilities? They ought to have thought about the difficulties for their wives or husbands and children before they broke the law." Of course that may be so, but we should not overlook the fact that the toughest criminal can still be a very fond father and a reasonable husband and that the anxieties and hopes that a father experiences for his family outside are very acute when he is separated from them, unable to discuss their problems in privacy at all and having to rely on limited letter-writing. Perhaps he cannot even write and has to rely on someone else to write the letters for him.

All this helps to build up the appalling pressure and tension, and ultimately this finds an outlet and we get riots in prison. That is one of the reasons why I do not support the suggestion of the hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) for a top security prison.

We need to look again at the question of parole. Parole should be obtainable more easily. Where prisoners are refused parole, they should be told why they have been refused, so that they can change their attitude or mend their ways or do whatever is necessary in order to qualify for it.

In conclusion, I remind the House of the words of John Howard, who was a great penal reformer. He said:
"I wish to have so many small rooms or cabins that each criminal may sleep alone. Solitude and silence are favourable to reflection; privacy and hours of thoughtfulness are necessary."
John Howard wrote those words in 1777, when English prisons were being described as seminaries of vice.

Two centuries later we are saying almost the same things. If we are to get prisoners out of these seminaries of vice, which is what long-term prisons are, I hope that we shall take on board those words and that it will not be one century, or even half a century, before we make real progress in the areas that have been indicated from both sides of the House during this debate.

3.6 p.m.

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew), who, with the skill of an accomplished advocate, put his finger on many of the difficulties in the penal system and ways to improve it. He has rightly been praised for doing that.

I thank the Minister of State for his consideration in speaking last, so that more of us can get our speeches in before he does.

If we were to ask a cross-section of the British people whether they have complete confidence in our legal system, they would probably say "No". And if we went on to ask what they thought in particular was wrong, they would be likely to say that we do not adequately punish the criminals we catch; that we care more for the welfare of the criminal than for his victim.

The importance of that response lies not so much in its truth—though there is truth in it—as in the fact that it is the widely held view of law-abiding, decent citizens who have every right to expect to be protected against the activities of the lawless in our society. Their view ought not to be ignored, and ought to be taken very much into account when we consider solutions to the problems of our penal system.

Most people in society expect prison sentences to be imposed on some offenders. Such sentences mark society's disapproval of certain offences and tend to deter the offender from repetition and others from following his example. And even where prison has been shown time and again not to be a deterrent to a particular offender, we still expect to be protected from the activities of dangerous and repetitive criminals. There is no more point in fining the professional burglar, who will pay his fine by reverting to his profession, than there is in putting a violent robber on probation.

Nevertheless, even the sternest advocate of law and order must hesitate in the face of the appalling facts. We have a higher proportion of our population in prison than any other country in the developed world, and still our crime rate rises. There are three times as many people in prison now as there were after the last war. Our prisons are mostly understaffed Victorian monstrosities, functioning as universities of crime or seminaries of vice. Our prisons cost five times as much as they did 10 years ago. It now costs nearly £80 a week to keep a man in prison, and nearly £120 if he has a wife and children, all paid for by the taxpayer.

Unhappily, prison reform is not a popular rallying call. With the limit on resources, the opposition to new prison sites, the increase in the number of prisoners and inflation, the situation is becoming unmanageable, and it is not fair to expect the hard-pressed and excellent Prison Service to go on coping without relief.

What is needed are not more and longer prison sentences but a more effective penal policy and more effective sentences. And, where possible, we should see that prison sentences offer some reasonable hope of reform and rehabilitation. The criminal should be given a chance to redeem himself, as much for society's sake as for his own, because the sooner he stops taking from society and starts contributing to it the better it is for all. And if he can make restitution, the interests of the victim will become a matter of paramount importance.

I suggest that there are two absolute priorities for an effective penal policy. First and foremost, the prison population must be reduced to manageable proportions. Some of the suggestions that are frequently made by the Howard League and NACRO—which do sterling work, and long may they continue to do so—such as reducing the number of crimes in the book, or restricting the number of crimes that are imprisonable, or limiting the power of judges to impose long sentences, or increasing the amount of remission or parole, would not be popular with the public.

Others would be more widely accepted. I suggest, for example, a wider use of suspended sentences—50 per cent. of which, according to the last count, are successful—deferred sentences, and more properly supervised probation. We might consider partly suspending sentences. For example, a sentence of five years' imprisonment could mean one year being served immediately with the other four suspended.

My hon. and learned Friend spoke about a fixed reduction of the sentence for a guilty plea. That is a matter to be considered, although I think that we should do more to increase the rate of conviction, and perhaps in the end even reduce the amount of time spent in prison, if we did something sensible about the right to silence and introduced tape-recorded interviews by police officers. But that is a matter for another debate.

I think that it would be acceptable, too, to have more week-end sentences, depriving the offender of some of his liberty but enabling him to remain in touch with his wife, family and job.

It is beyond argument that our prisons should be cleared of those whom society would not want to be there in the first place—drunks, debtors, vagrants, those for whom bail has been considered appropriate and, worst of all, children.

The first priority is to reduce the prison population. The second is to convert the mainly negative approach of too many prison regimes into a more positive and constructive process. That would be most effectively done by making many more prisoners work constructively in prison, and work hard wherever possible. To those who say "You can't get prisoners to work, however hard you try" I reply "Try making remission and parole conditional upon a positive work effort as well as on passive good conduct."

There is the added problem that it is often very difficult for suitable work to be found for prison inmates, as a result of which they cannot always have an opportunity to work if they wish to do so.

There is no difficulty about the wit of man devising, out of the many thousands of work processes that can be carried on, a form of work process that would be amenable to the prison regime. I do not accept that there is an insuperable difficulty.

If we positively tried offering disincentives to idleness it might get people working. After all, the putting of young hooligans to work for society by community service orders is showing some success, as are the work experiments in some prisons. I mean not the sewing of mail bags to pass the time but proper industrial work, which surely can be devised, of the kind that was pioneered at Coldingley and that we see working in other prisons, such as Camp Hill.

To those who say that the trade unions would not allow it, my reply is "I do not believe it. Ask them again. Explain to them the great value to society of such work schemes and you will find them far less opposed than perhaps they were."

Some were.

Further, if working prisoners were paid a real wage for a real job, see what society would gain. They could pay taxes and national insurance contributions and thus avoid one of the past difficulties of obtaining a job on release without a stamped insurance card or the dishonest stamping of a card to give the employer the impression that the man has not been in prison. Prisoners could contribute to their keep in prison. The could even save money and thereby would avoid the demoralising and crime-provoking situation in which they leave prison with an inadequate hand out. They could pay compensation and make restitution to the victims of their crime. Work might give them some dignity where only humiliation now obtains.

What could we do for the Prison Service with a smaller prison population, with more room to work in and more responsive prisoners, who had more incentives to improve themselves? Conditions in prisons would improve and would become more attractive for prison officers to work under.

Finally, public confidence in the legal system would increase. If more prisoners were made to work hard, productively, and towards the reduction of the costs they have incurred, it could not so easily be said by society that we pander to them and give them a soft life at our expense. If it is true that many people commit crimes because they are frightened to work, the fear of having to work in prison may make prison, for the first time, a deterrent.

3.15 p.m.

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate, albeit at a late stage and somewhat briefly. The way in which the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) introduced this subject was admirable. It exemplified the fact that there is a considerable degree of agreement in the House as to the way in which some, at any rate, of these problems can be resolved. That does not mean to say that there is no element of controversy. It may be that I am about to refer to one aspect that is controversial.

There is already wide agreement about a number of ways in which we can reduce the prison population. I wish to develop one point that has already been touched upon. I refer to the question of the removal of what some of us would call unnecessary offences. One remembers now, with growing incredulity, that it is not so long ago that adult males were sent to prison for consenting to homosexual acts. When we look back at that we can see that it was utterly ridiculous as well as socially destructive. It is only 10 or 12 years ago that quite long and fearsome prison sentences were imposed in respect of such acts.

I would say that exactly the same thing should apply to prostitution. I shall perhaps be rather more controversial when I say that it should also apply to the organisation of prostitution. Prostitution is as old as the human race. It seems, if I may advance this philosophical proposition, that it is as much a matter of personal choice and moral value as it is a matter concerning others. It is silly and intrusive on the part of society—a residue of the Pauline approach to social matters, which has been so destructive and wrong in many ways—that we should try to interfere in this way. The very effect of penalising organisation of prostitution has led to its being driven underground, into the hands of professional criminals. Penalties will not stamp it out. No society has ever succeeded in doing so and none ever will.

All that penalties do is drive prostitution into the hands of the professional criminal, into a twilight world on the fringes of society. In so far as there are, people who may otherwise be rehabilitated—and it is a question-begging point as to how far that is possible, because there are obviously fringe cases—we make it more difficult by making prostitution illegal. It is high time we recognised that.

The law at the moment is quite absurd. If it is lawful to be a prostitute, why is it not lawful for prostitutes to advertise and to be organised? It is a joke against my own profession, but it is rather like the Bar. Advertising and soliciting is illegal but the select building up of a clientele is professionally permissible. The two or three other members of the Bar in the House today may not altogether appreciate the point, but I think that they will see the analogy. There are offences for which it would be reasonable to cut down the application of prison in the form that it takes at the moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) referred to the events of 1872. One has to remind oneself—almost pinch oneself in surprise—that the Vagrancy Act 1824 is still in force and that people are arrested for what is known as being a suspected person—in the jargon of the criminal, "nicking for suss". That is a totally unnecessary offence. It can be used—I am not saying it happens very often—by the police to harass an inadequate person In so far as an offence is committed there if, no proper rôle for it. If it develops to a state where a complete offence takes place, it can normally be dealt with otherwise, normally as burglary or theft. If it does not, often, if necessary, it can be dealt with as an attempt.

The "suspected person" offence smacks of illiberalism in many ways. It is an unnecessary and anachronistic offence, which is punishable with imprisonment, and in my view it is one that should go out of the criminal calendar altogether I also wish to refer to the problems arising from the mental aspects of prisons. Those of us who practise in the courts notice, time and again, that there is some history of mental disturbance in the case of a long-term recidivist or a person who has a propensity persistently to offend. Many of those people do not come within the confines of the Mental Health Act as it now is. In many ways the courts do not have adequate powers to deal with them. Such a person falls within a sort of shady area between the person who might be given assistance by the probation service—a sort of extra-mural medical assistance—and a person definitely qualified for an order under Section 60 of the Mental Health Act.

In my personal capacity I have had experience of a man who was found unfit to plead in relation to a trivially violent offence. It was a violent offence in that it came within the compass of the Offences Against the Person Act. That man was found unfit to plead and because of the verdict found himself in Broad-moor for a period of 18 months to two years before he was deemed fit and could be properly arraigned. As a result, he was given a custodial sentence longer than would have been the case if the matter had been dealt with in the first instance. He was not a violent offender in any normal sense, nor was he a security risk. When the case came up again the judge said that he was most distressed to discover that this man, who would at most have received a short period of imprisonment, found himself languishing in one of the three high security grade mental hospitals. There must be some way of avoiding that kind of situation.

I notice that the clock is moving on and I understand that at least one other hon. Member wishes to take part in the debate, which has covered a great deal of ground.

I end with one observation. I agree with Opposition Members that the dispersal policy of the category A prisoners is wrong. As so many seem to be politically motivated terrorists nowadays, I can see nothing but trouble in dispersal. It is not an easy situation. The ideal solution may be to build some maximum high-grade prisons in places like St. Kilda or Rockall. However, I have not convinced myself in this regard and I shall not attempt to convince the Minister.

3.24 p.m.

In the short time available to me I wish to make a couple of points, but I shall not be so brief as to avoid congratulating my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew), not only on his good fortune in coming first today, and second in a fortnight's time—my hon. and learned Friend is establishing a monopoly—but also on the good use to which he has put his good fortune.

My hon. and learned Friend was absolutely right to say that the way to tackle the problem which he has highlighted is by seeking to reduce the prison population. I thought that he made some excellent suggestions. It seemed to me to be in the best tradition of British justice that my hon. and learned Friend, himself not unconnected with the legal profession, should recommend to the House certain ways by which legal costs could be saved. I commend also his wise suggestion that there should be a system under which, if an accused pleaded guilty, there would be a certain automatic remission, thereby in no uncertain way helping to reduce the prison population.

Gartree Prison is in my constituency. I saw it built, and ever since I have kept, I was about to say a fatherly interest, but perhaps I should say a brotherly interest, in it. After he has looked into the matter, will the Minister tell me why I, as the Member of Parliament for Harborough, the constituency within which Gartree lies, have still not seen the report on the 1972 riots, and why I have been consistently refused by Home Officials sight of the film of the riot damage?

I cannot understand it. Now that the Home Office is showing a new attitude, as evidenced by a film permitted to be shown on television the other day. I hope that Members of Parliament who are not opposed to it will not be treated at arm's length in these matters and that as the taxpayers' representatives we will be recognised as having a right and proper interest.

My second observation relates to the prison officers. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) made an excellent speech about the situation in his constituency, referring to the problems which prison officers encounter from time to time as a result of what he called innuendo. I support what he said, and I have such a case very much in mind. On 21st February, in an interview on ITN "News at One", the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo)—I gave him notice that I should mention this matter if I had opportunity—made some very damaging references to the prison staff at Gartree, suggesting by innuendo a number of unpleasant facts. In addition, what incensed the prison staff even more was that the reporter on "News at One" said that Ince was being transferred from Leicester Prison to, I believe, Wandsworth that day.

One cannot imagine a more stupid and less public-spirited statement, since it is well known how much that prisoner is disliked in the underworld. The prison officers felt deeply not only that the lives of their colleagues had been needlessly threatened but that the reputation of the service had been smeared by the remarks made.

I promised the Minister that I would sit down at half-past three, and I shall end by making a plea in relation to the dispersal prisons. The prison officers in dispersal prisons feel that they have a very special job to do. They are handling a special type of prisoner. The Minister will know that in London last month an inaugural meeting of prison officers from dispersal prisons was held. I believe that they are, so to sneak, forming an association within an association.

I understand that seven or eight important points were resolved at that meeting—I should have dwelt upon them today had there been time—and that they will be sent to the Minister through the post. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that I have met the prison officers concerned and I have been through the points with them. I very much hope that he can give an encouraging reply saying that not only does the Home Office recognise the importance of dispersal prisons but that we as a nation recognise the debt which we owe to all the staff who seek to do an almost impossible task often in very difficult circumstances.

3.30 p.m.

I am tempted to ask, not entirely flippantly, whether hon. Members have the rest of the weekend at their disposal. So many points have been raised in this wide-ranging and excellent debate that it would take me the rest of the weekend to answer even half of them. I am glad that hon. Members have been able to speak so freely and that we have been able to have as many contributors as possible. I hope that they will forgive me if I do not deal with all their points in detail. I assure them, however, that every point made in the debate will be examined.

The Home Office is not hidebound, and certainly does not lack progressive thought. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) was right to say that, compared with the vast majority of the population and bearing in mind how many people believe that sheer toughness with prisoners is an end in itself, the Home Office in the last few years has been progressive in its thinking, flexible, and willing to examine the situation.

I wish to make two general points in opening. The first is that hon. Members have been careful to strike a balance between the criminal and the victim of crime. Obviously both considerations require a great deal of thought. Secondly, this debate has highlighted a profound dichotomy in our society and sometimes within ourselves when we examine a problem from different points of view. Just as the motor car driver who occasionally becomes a pedestrian takes a different view of matters when he is not behind the wheel but walking the streets, so many take the view that we must strike a balance between the belief in a more humane regime as being good for our society and for the prisoner and those points at which we believe liberality or harshness are being overdone. There is that dichotomy in many minds.

That does not rob us of the duty to make clear to society as a whole that many problems cannot be wished away. As the Minister responsible for the criminal law, I often have to make the point to hon. Members that if the criminal law and the deterrence to crime were simply a matter of how harshly criminals are to be treated, that would be a simple matter to deal with, but because deterrence is such a complex and convoluted matter it is extremely difficult to deal with.

Although criticism has been made of the prison system for various inadequacies, in this debate there has been no criticism of prison officers. I wish, on behalf of the Prison Service, to say how grateful I was to hear the kind words about prison officers. I should like to underline and reiterate them.

The recent report on the Hughes affair made clear how high a duty we place on prison officers, and it is a mark of the value that we accord to their work that we place such a high responsibility on those officers. I certainly pay my personal tribute to them. We are lucky in these times to have in our prisons so many men and women of such quality who deal with these matters, not in a purely negative attitude of containment but positively and in a way that that often strikes up constructive relationships between prisoners and prison officers—relationships that are valuable to society as well as to the internal régime in the prisons. Hon. Members have recognised that the size of the prison population and the nature of the problems of prisons are governed by sentencing, one of the reasons for which is deterrence.

I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) that one of the greatest deterrents to crime is the probability of detection. One can never have the certainty of detection, but one can have the probability that comes from the means available to the police and their strength.

The hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Le Marchant) spoke about police strength. I have already mentioned that there has been an increase of 2,300 in the last year, and there was also an increase in 1975. We have gained more than 7,000 police officers in the last two years. That is certainly a constructive way to combat crime and, therefore, to deal with the problem of the size of the prison population.

I turn now to the question of shorter sentences. Parliament passes laws that give the judges discretion. Here lies the Minister's dilemma. We do not see the individual cases that come before those judges and we do not know in exact detail the nature of them. We often rely on scant and inadequate reports of cases upon which to form a judgment. Therefore, it would be totally wrong and alien to the tradition of the British constitution to say that judges are wrong in the exercise of their discretion. We, as well as the judges, have to contribute our part to the debate and we have to say something that is established pretty firmly, namely, that for many people the fact of imprisonment, as opposed to the length of it, is the primary salutary shock. Although a short sentence will not be a deterrent to the most hardened criminal, neverthless, it is a powerful way forward and a means of decreasing the prison population.

I do not want to cavil, but the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) said that we had the highest proportion of prison population in the civilised world, or certainly in the western world. That is not true. The United States has proportionately two and a half times the prison population that we have. I claim satisfaction from neither of those figures. It is right and proper that we should say that the prison population is too high. One of the aims of penal policy, consistent with the protection of society, must be to reduce the prison population.

Another problem, which pre-dates or goes outside prisons, is decriminalisation. I have taken the strong points made by hon. Members about the well-known categories of drunks, vagrants, the mentally disordered and prostitutes. The three most commonly referred to in the debate are the drunks, vagrants and prostitutes. I accept that we have to see whether decriminalisation is right and proper for those three categories, but I beg the House not to overestimate its effect on them.

In the last year the number of drunks who were imprisoned made up 0·5 per cent. of the total prison population, vagrants made up 0·1 per cent. and prostitutes made up 0·4 per cent. Even if we lump them all together and say that there will be no more imprisonment for those categories, we are still talking of only 1 per cent. That does not make the principle wrong, but we should not overestimate the degree of relief that decriminalisation in those categories will give.

There are in prison about 1,100 fine defaulters—not, as I think the hon. Member for Cheltenham said, about 5,000—or 4 per cent. of the prison population. We are continually considering this matter. We have considered European experience. No European country has felt able to do without imprisonment, in the last resort, for fine default. However, we shall continue to look at the matter to ascertain whether fine default attracts imprisonment at the right time and whether persistence in non-payment must be proved to a greater extent than it is now before the sentence is carried out.

Much attention has been given to the Finer Report and the question of maintenance defaulters. As those of us who have appeared for parties to matrimonial disputes will readily concede, there is an element in matrimonial disputes when reason flies out of the window and people say "I do not care whether I have the money; I am not paying". There was a widely quoted example in an affiliation case this week of a disc jockey who said "I have not paid the woman because, although the court found that I was the father of the child, I am not", In weighing up the Finer Report, we must consider attitudes of that type.

The test that the court must apply is whether the person appearing before it has the means and has wilfully refused to pay. Therefore, the allusions to people being too poor to pay may be right, but they may point to a wrongful exercise of the discretion of magistrates rather than there being a weakness in the law which we should put right.

The question of dispersal prisons has been raised. The Radzinowicz Report—a report of the Advisory Committee on the Penal System—dealt with this matter in the wake of the Mountbatten Report and came to the conclusion that dispersal prisons rather than the single prison were answer for very violent people. I want hon. Members to be under no illusion that if there were one or two such prisons the regime in an "abandon hope all ye who enter here" type of establishment for those who worked in that establishment would not be an easy or comfortable matter for any of us to contemplate. My noble Friend Lord Harris will be prepared to consider most carefully all the suggestions that have been made.

This is not a simple matter. As the hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) said, it is a question whether there should be security for the public as against those who are inside. It has now moved to a problem of control in the prisons. Let hon. Members not forget that there was a control unit in Wakefield Prison, but it has, rightly, been abandoned. It never dealt with more than half a dozen prisoners, which was a great tribute to the prison staff and the way in which they could strike up relationships. Let hon. Members not be under any illusion about the complications that could occur for staff and prisoners in one or two such prisons.

I return to the question of the mentally ill. Under Section 60 of the Mental Health Act, if, after the imposition of sentence, a prisoner is found to be suffering from mental illness, the court or the Home Secretary must be satisfied that a hospital place exists for him and that a hospital authority is ready and willing to take him. That imposes difficulties, of which the hon. Member for Barkston Ash will know, about the willingness of psychiatrists and medical staff in hospitals to accept offenders of this type.

Indeed, is this not one of the most difficult problems—that the hospitals can refuse to accept such people? A would-be patient can be hawked around in vain from one hospital to another.

Absolutely. The Home Secretary and I are worried about instances of this which have occurred recently. In the wake of the Butler Report and of the working party that was set up, there has been a move towards the provision of secure places in mental hospitals. Initially there should be 1,000 places. That has now been approved by the Government and both the capital and running costs of the scheme will be Government funded. We hope that the regional health authorities will now make this provision. It is no part of a civilised policy to put the mentally ill in prison and make prisons the receptacles of those whom no other agency in society will accept. It is hoped that these provisions will go some way towards meeting the obvious difficulties that were indicated by the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew).

Will there be any priority for teenagers and young people suffering from mental breakdowns?

That is a matter for detailed study. However, there will be places that are not now available that will provide security combined with medical treatment, rather than prison incarceration. That is an advance.

I also want to speak about alternatives to prison, because they affect the prison population. The Criminal Law Bill that the House will, no doubt, debate at great length in the summer goes some way towards the imposition of higher monetary penalties but shorter custodial penalties in those categories of offences that the Bill will shift from trial on indictment to summary trial.

The Bail Act will have an effect. There is the bail verification system and there will be more bail hostels. There are now nine such hostels, but this number will soon be increased to 18. There are also four attendance day centres for inadequate criminals, one of which centres is in my constituency. These are expensive, because they are labour-intensive, but they are worthwhile experiments. The community service order is significant. It covers 53 out of the 56 probation areas. From 1st April 1977 another 22 petty sessional divisions will be covered by the order. That point was mentioned by the hon. Member for Cheltenham.

I now turn to conditions in prisons. It is no part of the Government's brief to apologise for or to excuse overcrowding. There are difficulties, not only of overcrowding. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short) mentioned the Victorian buildings and the scandal of slopping-out that makes conditions even worse. We should strike a balance between concern for the obvious difficulties of the situation and not undervaluing what is being done now.

In 1970 there was peak overcrowding of 14,000. The prison population is now 15,900. In 1970 the numbers of prisoners sharing three to a cell was almost twice the number of those sharing two to a cell, but the situation has changed. From over 9,000 sharing three to a cell there are now fewer than 5,500.

Let me clear up any misunderstanding that there may have been about my intervention in the speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons). About 16,000 men and women share two or three to a cell. That is when the certified normal accommodation is 37,000 and the actual population is 41,500. By the end of 1980 or 1981 we expect the certified normal accommodation to reach about 41,500 and the average daily population throughout the year to be 42,600.

In trying to assess maximum overcrowding we must take account not only of prisoner peaks—the peaks that occur in prisons because of influxes at any time—but the margin of vacant places because of a rapid turnover of remand prisoners, the fact that cells have to be refurbished, and other operational needs. We believe that by 1980 or 1981 the current level of overcrowding may be reduced by one-third. Although that is not a totally happy picture, it is an improvement on the situation today.

I hope that that provides some reassurance to the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells. Although he highlighted the 1,700 deferred places, he did not mention—I do not make any partisan point about it, because he did not approach the matter in that spirit—that since 1970 5,000 new places have already been created and that by 1980 a further 5,000 will be created. Therefore, there is a concerted and steady move towards overcoming these conditions.

We have made provision, even now, for an increase in staff. We have made allowance for a further 675 net staff in the current year. I believe that the ratio of prisoner to staff will improve towards the end of the decade from what it was at the beginning of the decade.

I must refute the idea that in the majority of prisons the regime is one of pure containment. It is not. First, the quality of life is certainly no worse now than it was at the beginning of the decade and—this is a personal view—it may be marginally better.

Secondly, in both education and physical education provision has been made to give prisoners a constructive outlet for their energies. Indeed, statistics are available which show the number of people who were able to obtain qualifications whilst in prison.

I should point out that industrial work activity in penal establishments employs about 16,000 prisoners. Our aim is to provide increasingly good quality, suitable and well-organised work. The better the quality of the work, the more organisation that it takes. Therefore, I was glad when the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) paid tribute both to the quality of some of the products and to the efforts needed to organise that class of work.

Farming and gardening provide employment for about 2,000 to 3,000 inmates.

On that last point, has there been any opposition from the trade unions?

I would have made that point. In fact, there has been a good relationship with both the CBI and the TUC. There are working relationships with both bodies, not only to enable this activity to carry on but to have expert advice on the setting up and maintenance of these industries. That is very encouraging to all who are interested in this subject.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East mentioned the sewing of mailbags. Perhaps I may deal with that problem in the context of industrial activity. We have moved towards providing a better quality of industrial work in most establishments. But for certain people, particularly short-term prisoners, the training necessary to involve them in the more complex industrial activity that we are providing would be totally unreal in view of the length of their sentences. That is why there are certain rather more rudimentary sectors of work that we have to provide for them. However, that is declining considerably. There has already been a 40 per cent.

decline in the orders placed with the prison establishment for mailbags. They will be cut by a further 20 per cent. this year. Tedious and repetitive work is certainly disappearing.

The problem for the minority of short-term prisoners who are not capable of a very high degree of sophistication in the work that they undertake, and the problem for those establishments in which it is very difficult to reorganise the space available, will always be that we shall be faced with the difficulty of what constructive work we can provide for those categories. However, at present the turnover on industrial work in prisons is £17 million, and the turnover for the farming part of the business is £4·8 million.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) mentioned the dehumanising factors in prison life. He mentioned prison standing orders. He will probably know—if he does not, he can read it in the report of the debate in Hansard—that a review of the section of prison standing orders relating to privileges is now in progress. I merely reiterate that we believe in sensible regulation without unnecessary restrictions, because it is the fact of imprisonment, and not dehumanisation, that is what society seeks to impose.

The question of the categorisation of prisoners has also been mentioned. It is mentioned in the motion. It has cropped up with regard to the open prison and the fact that the open prison has about 200 vacancies at present. I assure the House that the Home Office is looking into the matter. It is not unconscious of the fact that these defects exist and occur. We have had a working party looking into the criteria for allocation to open conditions. I hope that when it reports we can introduce measures that will lead to the filling of the vacancies that exist and, therefore, to the lessening of the accommodation problem in closed establishments. I hope that that will be in the not-too-distant future and that that, too, will be seen as a constructive measure.

I should like to revert for a moment to the question of shorter sentences. I have already said that it is for the courts to decide what period in custody is appropriate, but common sense tells us that punishment of any kind deters. The exact mechanism of deterrence is, of course, highly uncertain. It is highly subjective, in that those of us who look at it each have our own views on what deters, but they are not necessarily based on any scientific evidence.

We have to ask ourselves whether, for those sentences in the middle range at any rate, a shorter sentence might not be equally effective—that is, whether we would sacrific anything in deterrence by scaling down some of our middle-range sentences. What we ought to ask ourselves is not only whether that is humane but whether it is sound penal policy. I believe that it very well may be. However, this is again a matter that the Advisory Council on the Penal System is looking at.

Just as the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells said that we ought not to respond to crises by taking panic action and then forgetting the crises as soon as they disappear, I believe that we should look at matters such as shorter sentences with the advice of some body such as the Advisory Council on the Penal System before launching ourselves into these reforms. That is why—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Orders Of The Day

Clean Air (Places Of Entertainment) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Second Reading deferred till Friday next.

Occupiers' Liability Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

With the approval of the sponsor of the Bill, Friday next.

Second Reading deferred till Friday next.

Statutory Instruments, &C

To save time, I propose to put together four motions relating to Statutory Instruments.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 73A (Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

Weights And Measures

That the Weights and Measures Act 1963 (Honey) Order 1977, a draft of which was laid before this House on 24th February, be approved.

Customs And Excise

That the Anti-Dumping Duty Order 1977 (S.I., 1977, No. 280), dated 23rd February 1977, a copy of which was laid before this House on 23rd February, he approved.

Coal Industry

That the Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order 1977, a draft of which was laid before this House on 2nd March, be approved.

That the Mineworkers' Pension Scheme (Limit on Contributions) Order 1977, a draft of which was laid before this House on 2nd March, be approved.—[ Mr. Graham.]

Question agreed to.

Ophthalmology Services (Thanet)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Graham.]

4.1 p.m.

The ophthalmic services in Thanet are in a serious state. It is a tragic situation. The tragedy of gradual and increasing blindness due to cataract or glaucoma in old people, deprived thereby of the pleasure of watching television or of reading a book, is rendered intolerable by the present state of the National Health Service in this field. The delay of about 18 months in operative treatment in the case of old-age pensioners sometimes means that their last years can never be alleviated by a simple treatment.

The fact is that one able consultant ophthalmologist works alone in Thanet. Eye illness in the elderly constitutes about 80 per cent. of cataract cases and 20 per cent. of glaucoma cases. There are also the problems of squint with children, a number of miscellaneous cases requiring grafts and others arising from accidental injury. A new field in the treatment of retinal problems now has an interesting future. It is of imperative urgency that a further consultant surgeon is appointed for the South-East immediately, particularly for Thanet, which suffers the worst in South-East Kent.

The delay that has existed in this matter is admitted. This issue came to me from the case of a Mrs. Mary Davies, of Harold Road, Cliftonville. She was first diagnosed as in need of an operation for cataract in February 1975. Her appointment to see the consultant surgeon was for 24th May 1977. I intervened in October, and as a result of the intervention the surgeon saw her and she received the treatment, but it meant that someone else went down the list.

On 10th November 1976 the Minister of State replied that the waiting time was
"approximately two years for routine cases"
and that
"an additional consultant was included in the programme for 1977–78. Priority depends on the South-East Region."
There was no comment from the Minister himself.

On 25th November the medical area authority confirmed that
"the waiting time for in-patient treatment can be up to two years. This is very largely due to the lack of in-patient beds in the district to cope with the demand … the provision of a new Central Eye Unit at Canterbury Hospital was planned to meet the deficiency. Lack of capital resources has held this development up until the 1980s."
In so far as that is a statement of fact, it is untrue. In so far as it is a statement of intent in the future, it is equally untrue. Capital resources are not great. There is no lack of in-patient beds, as I have taken the trouble to find out.

On 23rd November 1976 Dr. Porter, the regional medical officer, took the matter up with me and said:
"The accommodation for work is at Dover, Canterbury and Thanet"
with four eye surgeons. None of the units
"are sufficiently large enough to attract trained junior staff. The aim is to provide a new centre concentrated at Canterbury, but clearly this cannot be done until the capital investment programme improves."
As I shall establish, that is not in accordance with the facts of the future, although it is true, and he gave the figures, of the work that is done by the four eye surgeons.

On 1st December he regional medical officer gave the disposition of the four consultants and their work load. The work load for the four eye surgeons in the district is first-class. They do the maximum amount within a programme of part-time work. Mr. Darvell has the maximum of six sessions in Thanet, and this week he has increased this so that he will undertake operative treatment not only on Mondays but on alternate Thursdays. The general medical hospital at Margate is in a position to provide a further session, so that we can have sessions on each Monday and each Thursday, which would enable us to catch up with our backlog.

On 24th January 1977 the Minister of State said that we had a current waiting time of 39 weeks and that he had been misinformed of the extent of delay. He stated that priorities must be decided locally in the first instance, and that the authority must act on these priorities. On 7th February he said that the regional health authorities would shortly know their capital and revenue allocation for 1977 to 1978. He stated that the priorities were primarily for local consideration, and that the relative priorities could be decided only by the health authorities.

The priorities are now set out, There has been no costing in the light of the facts, and it is now for the Minister to press the regional health authority for early permission to proceed. In fact, the routine waiting time is 35 weeks. The muddle and confusion in this matter, from the Minister downwards, has proved quite indescribable during my investigation of the problem.

Every time I write, I have to write five or six letters, one to the Minister, one to the regional health authority, one to the Kent area, one to the district, one to the consultant and one to the patient. The ball is thrown from one to the other, until finally, as a result of the granting of the debate, it is clear that some help is forthcoming.

I received information on 11th March from the district administrator, Mr. Forryan, that the Canterbury and Thanet Health District had included an additional eye surgeon as fourth—but this morning he has risen to third—in the list of priorities in its applications to the regional health authority. The first priority is for a psychiatrist, the second is for a haematologist, and the third is for an ophthalmologist. In my view the ophthalmologist should rank first with the psychiatrist.

To overcome the backlog of cases and ensure a reasonable service for Thanet the following action is required: at Margate General Hospital, instead of one operating session a week on Monday mornings there should be two, on Mondays and Thursdays. Beginning this week, sessions are starting on the alternate Thursdays.

In Margate, the sole operating surgeon, Mr. Darvell, has under his care three male, three female and two children's beds in the Margate wing. For the extra session he will require a further four beds, but in this there is no problem. Mr. Darvell works a full and very heavy week and he is full throughout the week with only two afternoons for other duties. He works the maximum part-time consultancy service.

There are at present four consultants in East Kent—Mr. Darvell, Mr. Snow, Mr. Simpson and Miss Starbuck. To make the operation successful, additional operative treatment must take place at Canterbury, for if Mr. Darvell takes on further sessions in Margate the additional consultant is required for the area as a whole.

These persons know the problem—and here there is a surprising fact. It happens that there are two empty theatres available for use at Canterbury at the moment. This fact has not been disclosed by anybody except the surgeons themselves. Canterbury is recognised as a suitable centre for operative eye treatment. At present the ancillary equipment that they will require is a microscope. I have inquired the price from Zeiss and the one that they want cost about £5,500, plus a further £2,000 for the additional facilities that go with it. They also require a cryoprobe which costs a further £1,000. The additional operational cost, having regard to the existence of this theatre, would appear to be small. That is a capital cost of about £10,000, which is a negligible figure. The suggestion that there may have to be investment of £500,000 is simply not supported by the facts.

Canterbury would make the best centre in which the team would work. There are, or will then be, five of them and the additional staff needed would be first, I am advised, half a houseman. That is to say, the present houseman would give up his current ENT duties and would be full-time ophthalmic. In addition, the unit would need one clinic nurse. It would not be necessary, as has been suggested, to have half a medical secretary.

Mr. Darvell practises at Margate effectively without any houseman, although he uses the part-time occasional services of one, but he has no other special staff. Four additional beds to the present 16 would be needed for the new unit to be expanded at Canterbury, but there would be no problem on that account. The whole operation could be carried out cheaply, speedily and effectively and would require no additional buildings and no additional operating theatre.

The total cost of staff with their extra-domiciliary visits would be between £12,500 and £13,000 a year. That would include £6,000 for the surgeon, £2,000 for half a houseman and £3,000 for the clinic nurse. I have been advised by the district authority that it is proposing for this new unit the additional four beds which are necessary for the fifth member of the team. There would then be a sufficiency of beds. Canterbury, with its present number, is already recognised by the Royal College for training purposes.

I turn now to the administrative system. It has taken me months to break through and get to the true position. I heard this morning by letter from the Minister of State that it is proposed to permit a further ophthalmologist for the area. If this question could have been left to the district in the first place, it could have been, and should have been, dealt with many months ago. I ask the Minister to tell the regional authority to treat the matter as one of priority so that suffering may be alleviated for the paltry sums involved.

Of course, the Minister will be the first to realise the need in due course to abolish the area authorities, with a saving of over £200 million. They are useless at present. They have been of absolutely no assistance in either this or the many other problems I deal with concerning the National Health Service.

There is one final point about which I have written to the Minister. How does it come about that the monthly allocations of finance were first notified last week—the beginning of March—when more than two months of the year had gone? How can the Government imagine that the authorities are to carry out their programme when the information relating to finance arises, it would seem, six months late?

4.13 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) for raising this matter. He has shown once again his continuing and proper concern about the health services available to his constituents, a concern previously expressed in correspondence, about this and other matters, with various Ministers and in discussions and correspondence at various levels of health authority.

The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to his elderly constituents and to one particular case. Let me say at once that I fully sympathise with anyone who suffers pain, hardship or personal inconvenience. I share the hon. and learned Member's concern, and so also, I know, do the health authorities, which, as the bodies primarily responsible for the administration of services at a local level, have to take decisions on how to allocate the resources at their disposal, including manpower resources.

Perhaps I should first explain the procedure used by my Department for the allocation of consultant posts. This is designed to leave as many decisions as possible in the hands of health authorities, and it is for the health authorities concerned to decide whether there is a need for a particular post.

Ophthalmology is not one of the few specialties in which there is a recommended national norm for consultant staffing; and even these are regarded as guidelines to be interpreted flexibly in the light of local conditions. Authorities themselves are in the best position to judge the demand for services, the provision of alternative facilities elsewhere, the availability of supporting staff and the facilities in related specialties and so on. Decisions on such matters are best taken in the light of local knowledge, and are not, therefore, for my Department.

Similarly, deployment of posts within a region is a matter for the regional health authority. Consultant posts can be relocated within a region without the approval of the Department being necessary. We have a rôle to play only if an authority wants to increase its total manpower in a specialty. If there are, say, five posts in a given specialty in a region, it is for the regional health authority to decide how they can best be allocated among the various hospitals. In reaching this decision, it will naturally take account of local views and of the opinions of the medical profession working in the region. I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman is aware that there are a number of advisory committees to enable the authority to receive expert specialist advice on matters such as this.

It is, however, necessary for regions to come to my Department when additional posts are required. For convenience, this is done on an annual basis. Each year regions are invited to submit bids for new posts in each of the 40 or so medical specialties. These bids are purely in terms of a number of posts. A region will indicate that it wishes to have, say, three new posts for surgeons or five new posts for anaesthetists. No detail is given of where the posts will be used in the region. This is a matter entirely for the health authority. It follows that my Department does not attempt to make an assessment of need for the posts. As I have already explained, such an assessment can best be made at a local level, and we work on the assumption that if an authority requests a post it considers that there is a need for it. Once again, there will be extensive local consultation on this programme of bids for new consultant posts, and the medical profession locally will be invited to comment.

Hon. Members might ask why my Department is involved at all if it does not attempt to assess whether the posts are needed. The answer is that in certain specialties the demand for new posts exceeds the supply of candidates who will be available to fill them. The reasons for this are complex and are not strictly relevant here. The main point is simply that in these specialties candidates for consultant posts are a scarce resource, and some form of rationing is necessary to ensure that all regions get their fair share.

I am dealing with the general issue. I shall be coming specifically to ophthamology.

Each year, my Department makes an estimate of the likely number of candidates for consultant posts in the following year. This is based on the figures available for the number of doctors in the National Health Service training in the various specialties, together with information from previous years about wastage, emigration and recruitment of consultants from sources outside the NHS, such as the universities. In reaching this estimate, my Department is advised by the Central Manpower Committee, a joint committee of the Department and the medical and dental professions set up to advise on matters relating to hospital medical and dental manpower.

This process of estimation provides an indication of the number of new consultant posts which are likely to be filled during the following year. To approve more posts than this would mean that some would remain vacant. Experience has shown that posts are more likely to remain vacant in those parts of the country which have traditionally been least attractive to doctors and which, therefore, have fewest doctors per head of the population at present. In other words, if we approve too many posts, those that will be filled will be the ones in parts of the country that are already better off. It is for this reason that my Department has a rôle to play.

Of course, it is necessary to make an allowance for replacement of consultants who retire or die or leave the NHS for other reasons. Once this has been done, the remaining posts can be allocated to regions. Our policy here has been to allocate posts preferentially to regions which currently have the lowest ratio of staff to population so that in the long run there will be a much more even distribution of medical manpower across the country. It is then up to the region to allocate these posts to the different areas and so on down.

I turn to the specific issue that the hon. and learned Gentleman raised. Ophthalmology is not a specialty in which there has been a shortage of candidates for consultant posts. It has been popular with young doctors, and more than sufficient are in training to meet the demand for new posts. It follows that it is normally possible to approve all requests from authorities for new posts in this speciality, and this was what my Department did this year. We received requests for 12 new posts for consultant ophthalmologists and we approved them all. The South-East Thames Regional Health Authority asked for one post in the specialty and this was approved.

I understand that when the authority was first asked in October 1976 to submit bids for new appointments in 1977, it in turn, and in accordance with its regular practice, invited all its area authorities and district management teams to submit details of the additional consultants they would like to see appointed. The requirements of each district were then considered by a regional manpower com- mittee and co-ordinated in the regional bid to the Department.

In January of this year regional authorities were notified of the outcome. As I have already mentioned, the posts approved for South East Thames Region included one in ophthalmology, and the decision as to where it should be established is for the regional health authority to take.

As in the previous decision on which posts to apply for, authorities have to take account of several factors. First, they must have regard to the financial implications of what is proposed. Consultants are expensive—not so much in terms of their salaries, but because of the cost of the supporting staff and facilities they will require if they are to carry out their duties. The district management team has quoted figures which are not the same as those quoted by the hon. and learned Gentleman. This is a matter of fact which will need to be resolved.

For that reason, no authority can establish all the posts that are needed in any one year, and inevitably each authority has to set priorities and to postpone establishment of certain posts from one year till some date in the future. Secondly, the regional authority is obliged to take account of the needs and claims of other parts of the region. Only it is in a proper position to assess the relative weight which should be given to the various claims and to decide how to allocate the resources available.

Similarly, each district management team must balance competing demands for improvements in the various services it administers and establish the degree of priority proper to each. While this will not necessarily accord with regional priorities, the regional authority will clearly need to take account of district views in making its overall decisions. In this case, although the Canterbury and Thanet District asked for an additional post in ophthalmology, it regarded the need as less urgent than that for an additional psychiatrist at St. Augustine Hospital or for a post in haematology. If the hon. and learned Gentleman's information is correct, evidently it no longer regards a geriatric post as being of a higher priority.

Thus, although the regional authority has not yet decided on the allocation of the posts at its disposal, since it must take account of competing demands from other parts of the region as well as the needs of other specialties within the district, I cannot exclude the possibility that it will be unable to allocate the ophthalmologist post to Canterbury and Thanet. For the reasons I have given, the final decision must rest with the regional health authority. The Department would not seek to restrict its freedom to make the best choice consistent with the competing demands already mentioned.

Nothing that I have said, however, is intended to imply that the district management team, area health authority or regional health authority considers there is no case for the improvement of ophthalmology services. The hon. and learned Gentleman has given some graphic examples of the need in his area. There is general agreement that these services would merit improvement, but the authorities feel that for the present they must give precedence to even more urgent demands in other specialties and in other localities.

The hon. and learned Gentleman has referred to waiting lists and waiting times for ophthalmology treatment in Canterbury and Thanet. The district management team is well aware of the problem. In particular, it appreciates that waiting times in the Thanet part of the district are slightly longer than those in Canterbury. Consideration will be given to ways in which it might be possible to improve the situation.

Difficulties over waiting lists and waiting times for both out-patient appointments and in-patient admissions are not, of course, confined to this district. This problem has long troubled the Health Service in a number of areas and specialties. The size of waiting lists and the length of waiting time reflect, in particular, the resources that are available, and there will probably always be a waiting list problem of some kind since there is a limitless demand for hospital treatment. Many improvements can, however, be undertaken to reduce waiting times to a more acceptable level even within the present financial restraints. We are at present actively engaged in an exercise to this end.

The hon. Gentleman has said, and I am happy to hear it, that an ophthalmologist has been allocated to this region by the regional manpower committee. We have applied for that from Thanet and Canterbury to the region and thence to the Ministry. Surely it is not to be suggested that we are now to be deprived of this and that it will be passed to some other part of the region when the fact is that we made the application in October. All I am asking is that, the specialty having now been supplied to the region, the region should pass it on. Who else is in the field?

The hon. and learned Gentleman has made an important point. With respect, it is not one for me or my Department. If—and I do not know the facts here—there was only one application from a district management team to the regional health authority for an ophthalmologist post and that was the application which came forward to my Department, obviously the hon. and learned Gentleman, his constituents and the district management team will no doubt feel that they had a strong claim on that post. I do not know the position at this stage, although I can write and let the hon. and learned Gentleman know whether any other district has put forward a claim and the region, in its wisdom, has decided that it would merely put forward a request for one post.

Surely the manpower committee, when it considered this, would have to consider the demand in the light of the circumstances of the area and, therefore, it must have known that there was a demand for one ophthalmologist in the South-East Thames area or anywhere else.

With respect to the hon. and learned Gentleman, my Department would not have known that, because the application from the region was for one post for the region. I have tried to indicate that the way that post should be placed within the region is very much a matter for the regional authority itself.

I wish to come back to the question of waiting lists which the hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned in his speech. I am assured that the district management team is fully aware of what is required here and I understand that it was in advance of many in introducing the sort of flexible arrangements locally which can be very helpful.

The team has made it clear, however, that the long-term solution ought to lie in the provision of proper new facilities for ophthalmology in a 30-bed central unit for East Kent. The present thinking is that such a unit would also cover parts of the South-East Kent district and could, therefore, be suitably located at the district general hospital in Canterbury.

I should perhaps comment that my Department's long-term policy, on which appropriate professional bodies have been consulted, is that specialised services should be concentrated in district general hospitals because of the range of equipment, supporting facilities and specialised staff that are required to provide services of a desirable standard. This will take a long time to achieve, especially in the light of the Government's priorities document and its emphasis on non-acute services, but authorities are expected to move towards the goal of centralisation when decisions on the organisation and development of local services have to be made.

Consideration of this proposal is, of course, at a very early stage, and it will have to be discussed further as part of plans made by authorities within the new National Health Service planning system. As the system develops, the content of such plans will tend to become subject to wide-ranging discussion among local interests, and the arguments we have been rehearsing in this debate will no doubt contribute to that discussion.

I should like to turn now to the separate point raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman about the notification of financial allocations to health authorities. I fully accept the desirability of notifying authorities of their allocations well in advance of the financial year. In the not-too-distant past it was the practice to issue allocations by Christmas of the previous year, but the uncertainties surrounding the level of public expenditure that can be permitted even in the immediate year ahead have unavoidably delayed the notification of allocations for the last three financial years.

There are fundamentally two issues to settle before the total sums available nationally to the NHS for capital and revenue purposes can be determined. One is the change in volume of the service at a constant pay and price level compared with previous years. This depends upon the annual review of public expenditure, culminating in the annual White Paper on public expenditure. The latest was published in two volumes, one in January and the second last month, Cmnd. 6721. The second issue is the level of additional sums to meet the pay and price changes to produce the final cash limit sum. In the present state of the economy the hon. and learned Gentleman will appreciate that it has not proved possible to be certain about either of these factors well before the commencement of the year but it is to be hoped that as we reduce the rate of inflation and improve the balance of payments we can return to the more stable conditions for the planning of public exenditure. Certainly the situation is better this year, despite the economic circumstances. We issued the cash limits for both revenue and capital to regional health authorities on 21st February, which is some three months earlier than was possible last year for the revenue cash limit.

Although cash limits could not be notified to regional health authorities as early as one could have wished, we must also not lose sight of the fact that the National Health Service planning system was instituted last year. Health authorities were last May sent planning guidelines and resource assumptions for future years and advised in drawing their plans to allow for changes in the financial assumptions following the report of the Resource Allocation Working Party, as well as for other reasons. All health authorities would therefore have been giving thought to flexible plans for 1977–78 and on receiving their cash limits would be able to modify those plans.

It is in the context of plans evolved under that system that health authorities must consider the needs of Canterbury and Thanet health district and the priority, which the hon. and learned Gentleman has been stressing, to be afforded to particular services such as ophthalmology.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.