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Prison Accommodation

Volume 416: debated on Wednesday 14 January 1981

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2.47 p.m.

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 how many new places in prisons were completed in the financial year 1979–80, and how many they expect to complete in 1980–81; and what are the corresponding figures for refurbished places.

My Lords, 881 new places were completed in 1979. Full details of planned completions for 1979–1985 are given in the annual report of the Prison Department. Central records of the number of cells refurbished and redecorated in any one year are not maintained as the process is continuous. The problems associated with building operations, and, in the current financial year, the industrial action of prison officers, make forecasting difficult and often unreliable.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the prison officers' dispute, now hopefully ending, has shown interesting and unexpected possibilities by way of reducing the number of custodial sentences imposed? Is he further aware that new places in prisons cost £20,000 to £40,000 a place, whereas non-custodial centres cost £7,000 or even much less? Would it not be in the interests, not only of justice but of public finance for the Government urgently to re-examine the many suggestions which have been made for reducing custodial sentences and expanding non-custodial treatment?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord about the desirability of trying to see that those who have committed offences which are not violent and not serious should, if the court so sees fit, be given sentences which they serve within the community; and it is for that reason that, so far as the responsibility of the Government is concerned, we are investigating, and will continue to investigate, alternatives to imprisonment.

My Lords, what steps are being taken to let out of prison those who, by general consensus, it is thought need not be there at all from the point of view of the protection of public security or the public interest? Commitments have been made by the present Home Secretary and other members of the Government to take steps towards reducing the existing prison population. What is being done about that?

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord talks about what in effect adds up to Executive release. There is nothing on that subject that I have to say to the House this afternoon; but I would repeat what I have said to the noble and learned Lord's noble friend, that we are at all times pursuing and looking into alternatives to custody.

My Lords, does the noble Lord find anything strange in the fact that, owing to the industrial dispute with the prison officers, which mercifully seems now to be coming to an end, the judges and magistrates have found it possible to send to prison far fewer people than usual? Is there anything significant in that?

My Lords, I do not want to be unhelpful to the House, but this started off as a Question about the number of places in prison establishments which were completed last year and the number which will be completed this year. If we are to go as wide as the noble Earl wishes to lead me, perhaps this ought to be the subject of a different Question.

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that fewer new places would be necessary if the Government were to implement the report of the Advisory Council on Penal Policy on maximum sentences, which was published in 1978? Why have the Government not brought before the House measures for implementing those proposals?

My Lords, if I may, I would say to the noble Lord that when the Government announce, as they have been announcing, what we hope is a realistic building programme for the next three years, when we intend to start the building of six new prison establishments, this does not mean, in fact, a very large net increase in the number of prison places. All the time that one is building new places, the old places, in the decaying state of the prison system, are going out of use.

My Lords, will the noble Lord bear in mind that if the Government were to do as I suggested, not many new prisons would be required?

My Lords, I have already said that we are at all times looking at the possibilities of alternatives to custody—and that includes the possibility which the noble Lord has mentioned in his supplementary question.