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Prison Rules

Volume 413: debated on Friday 10 October 1980

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My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the decision of the European Commission of Human Rights, sitting in Strasbourg, concerning complaints of a British convicted murderer, means that there will be changes in the present rules for all prisoners.

My Lords, the European Commission of Human Rights has not yet reported on various applications before it about the restrictions on correspondence to and from prisoners in England and Wales. We have been discussing these cases with the commission and we are considering changes in the regulations on prisoners' correspondence. At this stage it would be premature to publish details.

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that reply, may I ask whether he can give any idea when these conversations will take place, what is the attitude of the prison officers to the suggestions, and whether we may have a reply in the near future?

My Lords, the commission is considering the allegation that certain restrictions on prisoners' correspondence violate the convention and will report its opinion to the Committee of Ministers. We are considering changes in the regulations on prisoners' correspondence as set out in the prison standing orders, and this would affect all prisoners in England and Wales. To answer the last point raised by my noble friend, as an experiment it was decided to relax the restrictions on prisoners' letters in four category C prisons, and although the Prison Officers' Association agreed to the experiment the local branches have withheld cooperation and the national executive have stated that they will not press their members to participate in the experiment, and discussions are continuing on the matter.

My Lords, was there not an earlier successful petition to the Court of Human Rights from a prisoner, I agree on a rather different matter, but as this review and examination is now taking place into the limited field with which this case is concerned, would it not be a good idea to look at the generality of the prison rules so we may avoid being indicted before the Strasbourg court?

My Lords, it is difficult for me to answer a question from the noble and learned Lord when he refers to an earlier matter before the commission which referred to a different subject. If he could be more specific I would do my best to answer him.

I wish I could be more specific, my Lords; I cannot identify and remember the case at the moment, so the questioner is caught by the answerer. However, it was a case that came up about five years ago and I think it related to the right of a prisoner to receive legal advice with a view to proceedings against the Home Office; what I am pleased to call my mind has recovered itself and that was indeed the circumstance. If the generality of the prison rules could be looked at now and from time to time with changing arrangements and possibilities, I think that would be a good idea.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his clarification. The case which he recalls resulted in an amendment to the prison rules by the addition of what is now Rule 37(a)(4). I take the point which the noble and learned Lord is making, and that is why in my original Answer and in answer to the first supplementary I was at pains to say that we were considering changes in the regulations on prisoners' correspondence as set out in the prison standing orders and that if that happened it would affect all prisoners in England and Wales. So far as the whole generality of the prison rules is concerned, of course we continue to look at them from time to time.

My Lords, the Question refers to changes in the prison rules for all prisoners. In view of the chaos there now is in the prisons—overcrowding, unrest among prison officers and so on—may I ask the noble Lord whether the Government will urgently consider this matter and bring in legislation for changes?

There is net chaos in the prisons, my Lords. There is some industrial action but it does not result or arise from this question.

My Lords, does the Home Office consult with the Scottish Office and bring the practice into line for the whole of the United Kingdom in these matters?

I would need notice of that question, my Lords. I will, if I may, write to my noble friend.