Skip to main content

Prisons: Building Programme

Volume 479: debated on Monday 21 July 1986

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

2.37 p.m.

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

The Question was as follows: To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied that the prison building programme is on schedule, and whether the events of April/May 1986 have caused any variations to be made to that programme.

My Lords, the new prison building programme is unaffected by the recent prison disturbances, and remains broadly on target. Some slippage in the programme of prisons under construc-tion has, however, resulted from the severe winter and poor early summer weather. High priority will be given to measures to make good the lost time wherever possible. The programme of capital and maintenance work at existing establishments has been affected to some extent by the need to divert resources to repair the damage to the prison estate caused by the disturbances.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Can he confirm that although, when the full programme is completed in 1992, it will add a further 8,000 places in prisons, it will do no more than match the current needs? Can we be assured that the new prison capital expenditure does not starve the work that is required—and not merely for refurbishing? For instance, can the noble Lord confirm that the capital required to bring Lindholme in Yorkshire, which I recently visited, up to date will be found as well.

My Lords, certainly the option remains to expand Lindholme as necessary. I could provide more details for the noble Lord, but we have to see how it goes. As regards matching places with the prison population, I think the noble Lord is aware that we are broadly on target to do that. Precisely when it will happen depends very much on the statistical question of how the prison population grows. But by the early part of the next decade all should be well.

My Lords, we heard on Friday that the Government are spending a great deal of money on Wormwood Scrubs. I asked the question—and I repeat it again—is it not time the Government published a list showing exactly what they are doing to improve prisons in this country, particularly following the Select Committee's report that was published last week by colleagues in the other House? They issued a most damning report, saying what fearful conditions there are with no indication that anything is being done. Is it not about time the Government published a list showing what they are doing and what they are spending?

My Lords, a very great deal is being done. Sixteen new prisons are being built, some 10,000 or so places have been created from the conversion of existing facilities, and a great deal has been done to improve sanitation. If the noble Lord would like it, I can certainly arrange for him to have full details of that work and for that information to be made available in the Library.

My Lords, it would not be a bad idea to let the Select Committee have it too.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that Winson Green is a very old Victorian prison in Birmingham and that last week there were 1,000 prisoners there, although it should hold only 540? Is Winson Green prison on the new prison lists?

My Lords, Winson Green is not a new prison; it has been there for many years. We are building a further 16 prisons, two more were opened last year, and we hope to take forward another two. I can certainly let the noble Baroness have details about Winson Green, but I am afraid that her question goes rather wider than the wide Question on the Order Paper.

My Lords, I did not say that Winson Green was a new prison. I asked whether it would be on the new prison list, because it is a very old prison, it is very overcrowded, and it is a holding prison for magistrates' courts in the whole of the area.

My Lords, it is a Victorian prison. Certainly, work is being done on it. I cannot tell the noble Baroness off the top of my head precisely what work is being done or the timetable for its completion, but I shall certainly let her know.

My Lords, is it envisaged that when the cycle of new prisons has been completed, any of the very old ones will be closed?

My Lords, certainly that is an option that must remain open. The projections for the prison population are, as my noble friend knows, substantial, and I do not foresee the time when it will be possible to close more than the odd one, but I should like to leave that question open.

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that measures will be taken to ensure that there is sufficient accommodation for those committed to youth custody, given the fact that a number of young offenders are being housed in detention centres because of lack of accommodation?

My Lords, under the prison building programme there are two new youth custody centres being built. In addition, as the noble Lord will be aware, we set out in the Criminal Justice White Paper the question of perhaps using some detention centres for shorter youth custody centres. That is a live issue. But the detention centre system remains under-used whereas the youth custody system remains over-used.

My Lords, reverting to the report of the Select Committee, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Mellish, can the Minister indicate when the entirely sub-human conditions of sanitation in our prisons will cease? Is there a target date fixed, so far as the Home Office is concerned, so that at least by that date our prisons will deserve the term "civilised"?

My Lords, it is not true to suggest that all prison places are, as the noble Lord puts it, sub-human. Certain of them are far from satisfactory, but the report to which the noble Lord referred acknowledged (towards the end) that there had been some exaggerated comment about the state of some parts of the prison system and indeed about the medical side.

All new establishments provide access to sanitary facilities at night. The schemes currently in progress or planned at existing establishments will provide about 10,000 more places with integral sanitation. At present about 19,400 places, or just under half of the total certified normal accommodation, have access to sanitary facilities. By 1991 this will have risen to 28,300 out of a total of 47,700 places; and by 1999 it is expected that the figure will be about 37,800, or about 70 per cent. of the projected total of 53,400 places.

My Lords, is the noble Lord not aware that 16 new prisons is quite a lot of prisons? What constitutes the demand for increasing prison accommodation?

My Lords, while the courts sentence the Government have a duty to provide the necessary places. Of course it is a pity that successive governments, including the government of the party opposite when they were in power, did not see fit to conduct a building campaign in the way that it has been operated since 1979.

My Lords, will the noble Lord not agree that he has possibly not made as much as he might of the very good work being done from Winson Green Prison? Prisoners from there have been released all over the area to do all sorts of valuable work, including, to my knowledge, work on the inland waterways. This work, and all the other work that is being done, is enormously valuable not only to the area but also to the prisoners themselves. Will the noble Lord agree that the real trouble with this Government is that they are not blowing their own trumpet enough? They have a great many things they could talk about, but they simply do not. It is this that one rather despairs of. One feels that they do not have the feel somehow.

My Lords, I can assure the noble Viscount that I never lose any opportunity (and nor do my honourable and right honourable friends in another place) to describe precisely what is being done under the prison building programme and the changes that are being made to the existing prison estate. I note what the noble Viscount says about those who leave—I think those are the words he used—Winson Green.

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept agreement from this Bench that the Government lose no opportunity when appropriate to blow their own trumpet? Before the noble Lord makes political points about what the Labour Government did, will he reflect upon the terrific increase in prison occupancy since his own Government took over from the Labour Government? Is not this huge increase responsible for the conditions that I tried to describe earlier?

No, my Lords, I would not say that at all; I would say that it is a long-term problem which has been building up over many years. If the noble Lord looks at a graph of crime set against time, he will see that there has been a more or less constant trend since the middle of the 1950s.

My Lords, will the Minister accept from me that I acknowledge and appreciate the increase in the capital programme in both improving existing prisons and building new ones? But would it not be fair for the Government to spend a little more time on examining the non-custodial sentence aspect of the current situation? As well as making conditions in prisons better, ought we not to spend at least as much time in trying to avoid sending people to prison at all? Finally, to what extent does consultation take place with, among others, prison officers when new prisons are being designed?

Yes, my Lords, I agree. There is, however, already a wide range of non-custodial sentences, available to the courts, including suspended sentences, fines, probation and community service orders. We have to develop these further as far as we can. There are established arrangements for consultation with the trade unions representing governors and the other prison staff at various points during the briefing and design stages of all projects, and the views of staff are taken fully into account by the design teams.