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Penal System (May Report Recommendations)

Volume 981: debated on Thursday 27 March 1980

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asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he is now in a position to announce his proposals on the recommendations in the May report on the penal system.

I hope to announce decisions on the recommendations of the May committee on Home Office organisation after Easter.

Does the Home Secretary accept that his recently stated views on the need to reduce the prison population are widely welcomed? Does he also accept not only the urgency of a debate in the House but the need for quick action in order to contain the growing crisis in our prison system?

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says. I wish the nation as a whole—and as a first step the House —to appreciate some of the problems inside our prisons. Those problems, if I may say so, over many years, have been too little appreciated by hon. Members.

I have plans which I hope will help but I do not accept that they will help as emergency measures. I hope that it will be necessary to take not emergency measures but measures which will have a clear effect. However, emergency measures can never be ruled out, though I hope that they will not have to be taken.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only fully effective way of reducing the present critically large prison population is to use prison sentences for serious—and in particular violent—crimes only and to use alternative punishments for other offenders where it is possible?

I agree with my hon. and learned Friend. I have, as I think the House will appreciate, been a strong advocate of non-custodial sentences wherever possible, particularly for non-violent offenders. I will continue to stand for that principle since I am quite certain that it is in the interests of the nation. As my hon. and learned Friend will be the first to appreciate, in cases involving non-violent offenders shorter sentences—where thought appropriate by those administering them—would be valuable. In view of what some newspapers seem to say from time to time, that must be a matter for those who impose the sentences. It cannot he a matter for the Home Secretary.

Will the Home Secretary bear in mind that he first announced proposals for his short, sharp, shock regime to the Conservative Party conference? Is he aware that last Friday he announced his preliminary proposals for prison reform to the Central Council of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations? We may be a less appreciative audience, but will the right hon. Gentleman in future announce his proposals to the House, because hon. Members eagerly await a statement?

The hon. Lady makes a fair point. When I announced the proposals I had no responsibility, because at that time I was in opposition. When one is in opposition surely one is entitled to make statements outside the House, because one does not always hate the opportunity to announce proposals to the House first.

I am not speaking of when the right hon. Gentleman was in opposition.

The hon. Lady referred to my proposals for a short, sharp shock. I announced those during a by-election campaign in Birmingham when I was in opposition. I am not as good as some at remembering exact dates. I do not wish to be discourteous and I accept that I gave details to the Conservative Party conference. If I did wrong, I understand how the House might feel.

I made a general statement about prisons. I was not describing the detailed proposals for organisation which I have now promised. They will be more extensive. The hon. Lady thinks that I had an appreciative audience when discussing prisons. She should have heard and seen the audience. I do not think that it was all that appreciative of a speech by me about prisons.

Order. With respect, it might be my fancy, but it seems that answers are becoming longer.

As the prison population becomes more obvious and more alarming, should not the credit that the House pays to the prison officers for the splendid work that they do grow?

Will the Home Secretary continue his welcome positive and constructive approach by reminding the House and the country that the annual cost of keeping a person in prison is £5,894, compared with the annual cost of £250 for probation supervision, £350 for a community service order and £31 for an attendance centre order? Does that not demonstrate the efficiency of the non-custodial solution? Will he continue to place the emphasis on that in order to reduce the cost of the prison service?

The hon. Gentleman will not expect me always to be grateful for his interventions, but on this occasion I am grateful to him and, rather exceptionally, I entirely agree with him.