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Prison Regime

Volume 13: debated on Thursday 26 November 1981

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asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will give consideration to a reappraisal of the prison regime with a view to achieving a better balance between punishment and reform.

It is not the function of prison regimes to add to the punishment of the sentence of the court. The prison department is constantly seeking to develop new and positive elements within the prison regimes, despite the pressures on resources.

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that if we are to counteract the concept of prisons as penal dustbins we should give thought not only to improving the fabric of the prisons but to the purposes of imprisonment? What is the Home Office research unit doing in looking at this aspect of the penal system?

We do not want our prisons to be dustbins or any kind, penal or otherwise. It is important that the regimes, notwithstanding the shortage of resources from which we are suffering, should be as positive as possible. The regimes committee is involved in a continuous reappraisal of regimes and a review of the prison service's philosophy of management and arrangement of prisoners' home leaves. About four different groups of one kind or another are undertaking the examination of different aspects of the matter. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is very important.

Does the Minister agree that an appropriate balance between punishment and reform cannot be achieved while overcrowding in local prisons makes it impossible to sustain even basic minimum standards of human decency? Will the situation not be exacerbated by the introduction of a partially suspended sentence? Will the Minister reconsider this decision and introduce instead a scheme of supervised release, which would have the effect of reducing the prison population immediately by 7,000?

The answer to the question "Is it impossible for a proper balance to be maintained at present?" is, generally and unhappily, "Yes", but the hon. Gentleman is wrong in what he presses upon me in the second part of the question. The reason why we are now satisfied that supervised release would not be satisfactory is that there is a real prospect that it might add to the numbers of people in prison, rather than reduce them.

Is it not a fact that if more of our prisons provided constructive work for prisoners that would not only contribute towards the reform of offenders, but would help to punish those who are in prison because they are work-shy?

It is the continuous effort of the prison service to provide opportunities for worthwhile work for inmates. That is the case, notwithstanding the shortage of resources. The purpose of imprisonment is partly to help to prepare inmates for a useful and self-supporting life outside prison.

As there can be no improvement in the prison regime until we cut the number of people in prison, has not the Home Secretary denied himself the possibility of that improvement by capitulating to the judges and the magistrates in their refusal to reduce the amount of time spent in prison? If that is now the case, does it not mean that we have urgently to move towards legislation, as suggested by the Select Committee?

The hon. Gentleman was uncharacteristically inattentive to my last reply. There is no capitulation. The reason why the Home Secretary has changed his mind, as he has made clear, is that he has consulted people and heeded what he has been told. It is absurd to talk of capitulation when referring to a consultation that has been properly carried out, and the results of which have been listened to.