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Grendon Prison

Volume 491: debated on Monday 11 January 1988

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10.55 p.m.

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are confident that they can maintain the therapeutic regime at HM Prison Grendon at its previous standard, in view of the present state of staffing and resources.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is a great privilege for Members of this House to be able to ask an Unstarred Question with no-one, including our revered and respected Chief Whip, to stop us. But, sometimes, the price is rather high. I was advised that we should be able to start at about nine o'clock. A delay of one hour 55 minutes is an expensive price to pay. I might have considered a change of date but having found out during the day that we were to lose our Minister I thought that it would be unfair not to give him a final chance of refusing all my requests.

I begin by congratulating the Minister on the very important position he is being asked to take on, which will include very arduous work. I am happy to hear that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, will take his place. I only hope that the noble Earl's little finger is not larger than the noble Earl's loins and I hope we will be able to deal with him more easily than we have been able to deal with the noble Earl. But I will see how we get on tonight. I shall go as fast as I can because everybody wants to get home to bed. On the other hand, there are a number of points to be made.

The simple fact about Grendon is that ever since its first 10 years were completed, during which time it proved its worth to the Government and to many people outside, it has every two or three years been nibbled at by the pressures of the troubles in the prison service. We have had to try to protect it. Again, the simple fact is that I have previously asked two Unstarred Questions about this and in each case the Answers were satisfactory in words but followed by action, or lack of action, which was not satisfactory. Therefore, we have to start the whole process over again two years later.

The trouble is that Grendon is trying to do something which cannot be done at all unless it is done properly. But it is part of a wider organisation—namely, the prison service—to which governments have never given adequate resources for work to be done properly. The prison organisation has invariably run into serious crises; inevitably, it turns to any oasis it can find where things are being more easily run which it risks destroying altogether to save its bacon—if I may put it rather crudely.

Grendon was first conceived in the 'thirties and started in the 'sixties. The founders knew very well that what they were planning could be carried out only with fuller staffing and less crowded conditions than were usually to be found in prisons at that time. Under the powerful administration of its first medical superintendent and governor, Dr. Gray, who was there for the first 10 years, reasonable conditions were maintained. Several times since then governments have failed to maintain these standards, even though the first 10 years demonstrated clearly the value of the work.

About 15 years ago, there was a move to open a wing for disturbed women. Dr. Gray took me to see the Home Secretary and explained why he could not do that. He explained that the presence of women going round the prison—women members of the board of visitors, women social workers and women instructors—was thoroughly good and desirable. However, the idea of a wing for disturbed women in the middle of three wings of disturbed men could not for one moment be contemplated. I am glad to say that eventually we convinced Mr. Henry Brooke (I think that is who it was) and we have not heard about the women since.

In 1982 the prison authorities were at it again. They decided to increase the numbers at Grendon from 145 to 270, an increase which in everybody's opinion there and certainly in mine, would have entirely destroyed any chance of continuing with the therapeutic community which had been so painstakingly built up over the past 10 years.

Against this threat I put down an Unstarred Question and that persuaded the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, to go down to see for himself. In the end he agreed to a reasonable compromise. In the course of his reply he explained that the fierce problems under which the prison service was labouring and the deplorable fact that there were, at that time, more than 100 remand prisoners crammed into police cells with no proper facilities, made it essential for something to be done.

The fact that today, four years later, there are no fewer than 400 such prisoners in police cells shows that if we had allowed Grendon to be spoiled, the general problem would not have been solved in any way and nothing would have been gained although Grendon would have been irretrievably lost.

The Minister said at the end of the debate:

"We regard Grendon as an essential and a very successful part of the psychiatric services in the prison system and we are committed to ensuring that it continues to provide this valuable service."

By 1986, four years later, things were sadly wrong again. The budget was cut by £124,000; there was a severe loss of staff and the Chairman of the Board of Visitors wrote to the Home Secretary and sent me a copy. In addition, I received an SOS from one of the visiting psychiatrists. I put down a Motion for the Ballot and I was lucky enough to win.

We had another Grendon debate in April 1986. The Minister at that date, the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, explained the difficulties of the prison department (which we knew very well already) and gave us little satisfaction beyond confirming the clear statement of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that the Government were committed to maintaining the therapeutic regime at Grendon.

In my reply to the debate—a right of reply not available to me tonight on an Unstarred Question—I said:

"We are asking the Government whether they want to go on with the therapeutic regime at Grendon, which they admit and we agree is important and good, or can they not afford to do it? If they cannot afford to do it, I beg the Minister not to think he can do it at half-cock—he cannot. Yet that is what he is suggesting."

However, the debate did some good. The Minister soon squeezed some time out of his heavy programme to go to see for himself and, being an intelligent and a generous character, he saw what I had seen—a fine effort being ruined by marginal but prolonged undernourishment. Perhaps that would not be quite the version of what he saw and perhaps it would not be his version. Changes were made which went some way to restore the morale of governor and staff and things looked better.

Now, shortly after the debate in 1986, and after everybody thought that everything was going to be lovely, a whole wing was taken over for the holding of 60 Rule 43 prisoners which was regarded as Grendon's contribution to the crisis elsewhere. I think that there is nobody in this Chamber who does not know what a Rule 43 prisoner is so I shall not describe it.

This was a very awkward situation and now it is all awash again. I have had various SOS's from the Board of Visitors, the Prison Officers' Association, and the local probation service, as have other noble Lords.

I put down a Question for Written Answer asking whether the commitment through the noble Lord, Lord Elton, still held good and whether the Government planned to supply the necessary staff to allow for the implementation of Fresh Start. Again I think all noble Lords here will know what Fresh Start is so I need not explain it. The noble Lord's Written Answer was:

"We remain committed to making every effort to maintain the present regime at Grendon, and staff will be provided accordingly under the terms of the Fresh Start agreement. Work is in hand on transitional arrangements pending the availability of staff, and Fresh Start will be introduced following agreement locally."

I must confess that I did not think this Answer very reassuring. "Making every effort to maintain" anything has become a sort of music hall joke for doing sweet nothing. But I am glad to say that the present Minister characteristically lost no time in going down to see for himself. I warned him before he went that I should be asking him how he got on by way of an Unstarred Question as soon as he had had time to reflect on what he had found on his visit, and that is what I am doing tonight.

The problem this time stems from the intended introduction of Fresh Start, which is the bold and long overdue plan for rationalising excessive overtime and confusion of duties in the prison service. That is a most worthy and in every way desirable development and should be supported by everyone interested in the subject. But it is very complicated and very difficult; prison staff, perhaps not unnaturally, have been difficult, and I know that the Minister has very serious worries all over the service at this very moment, so I am most anxious not to say anything to make things worse. At Grendon in particular the present developments seem to me to look as though they may be fatal to the continuation of the therapeutic system, but I hope that we shall hear otherwise from the Minister.

A number of things are going wrong, particularly the staff keep being changed about. There are constant shortages of staff. Escorts for teachers often cannot be supplied and so the people supplying the teachers cancelled them from 4th December onwards. The monitoring of groups (which is an

essential part of Grendon therapy) has been cancelled on many occasions, and the Rule 43 Wing, which was originally given staff to look after it, is now having to be staffed by Grendon trained officers, and this is just silly as no therapy is given. It is simply a waste of trained officers. The Chairman of the Board writes to me:

"Therapy is not really being conducted efficiently. It is a 'botched up' job."

Dr. Gray must be turning in his grave!

But worst of all perhaps is the fact that no proper arrangements have been made known to governor or staff as to how and when Fresh Start is to begin. Even for the very sketchy transitional arrangements no extra staff have yet been made available. Work, as the Minister said, is in hand on transitional arrangements, but nobody on the staff knows what is meant by that. He also said that Fresh Start would be introduced following agreement locally, but there is no whisper of an agreement locally.

For people on the job this is very depressing indeed and the Christmas period has been particularly difficult. For the first time in Grendon history alerts have had to be called and staff recalled from their proper time off with their families. The consequent disruption has pushed morale down very low. It is sad to think that this is the third time in five years that there has been a real crisis in morale in this prison, whose staff have always been so dedicated to their work.

I have not tried to make the claims of what Grendon does. We have had various debates and I have done that before. The Minister knows exactly what the values are, and I think he agrees with me that they are useful. I do not think that he will question the value of the work at Grendon if it can be properly done. Really it is I who doubt its value if it is not properly done.

Let me just remind noble Lords of the minimum service which Grendon provides. Its population has 70 per cent. with a history of extreme violence; 10 per cent. with a history of violence in other prisons; there has only been one escape in 25 years, and only one case of major violence between inmates which occurred in the past year, in 1987, after the regime had already suffered some deterioration. We have 25 lifers in the population. I have every reason to suppose that the Home Office would like to send us more. We cannot take them at the moment in our present condition.

That is a quick run through the case I wish to present. I would have presented it a little better if I had had more time. It is not simply an attack on the Minister or the administration. I fully understand the pressure which leads every few years to the suggestion that it is only fair that Grendon should share the burden with other prisons. But now it is worth saying that it is being threatened with an even heavier burden than others. These burdens must be resisted. Exactly the same is being done to B wing at the Scrubs, but that is another point. Any effort to do better must be based on improved conditions. If you gradually worsen conditions you will quickly destroy one of the few good things in a service that is not rich in good things. Let me repeat: such things cannot be done at half-cock.

11.10 p.m.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, that it is unfortunate that we are starting two hours after the expected time. There is something about local government that leads its spokesmen to orate at great length, no doubt very eloquently as it seems to them, but at far too great a length for those of us who have to follow. At any rate I hope that the much respected governor of Grendon and his devoted and most efficient staff are not discouraged by the fact that this debate on a very important question is held at eleven o'clock and after and that there is such a small attendance in the House.

I know that the Minister himself attaches much importance to the situation at Grendon. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, helped to open Grendon 25 years ago and has played a leading part in one way or another in connection with the prison ever since. I first visited Grendon soon after it was started and I have visited it several times since, most recently last week. My knowledge does not compare with that of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson; nor does that of anybody else.

I join in expressing regret at the departure of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. It is a peculiar feature of our political system that once a Minister has a thorough grip on his department he is moved somewhere else. I was moved several times in the good old days of the Attlee Government. Now, just as the noble Earl was revealing all his capacities in the post, we shall have to teach someone else his business. However, we must put up with these happenings. The noble Earl will always be associated in my mind not only with hard work but also with great courtesy. The last time I went to see him, my watch had stopped and I was half an hour late. However, so great was the courtesy of the noble Earl that he never indicated that I was half an hour late and I discovered it only afterwards. That really is courtesy for you. We shall miss him very much.

I welcome very much the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, to his position as Leader of the House. We welcome, too, to the Front Bench the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, whose ancestor, as I recalled recently, was the last peer to be hanged with a silken thread. I know that, at times, being harassed in the House of Lords as a Minister may seem like being strangled with a silken thread. I am sure that the noble Earl will stand up to our criticisms and we look forward very much to working with him.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, knows much about this subject. Although he has had to boil down his speech in view of the shortage of time he has made all the essential points. I shall speak only for a few minutes. I shall touch on one aspect that does not always receive attention. I refer to the nature of this famous training. There is no magic about it.

The essential feature of Grendon is group therapy. I sat in on one of these group therapies. I know that the noble Lord who is to follow me has done the same. I also took what was called a question and answer session. There are a number of people, mostly with violent records, who have quite a lot in their past. They are expected, if intending to play the game at Grendon, to lay their souls bare in front of each other. It is not an exercise that most of us in this House would welcome, if we were forced to lay bare our souls among our colleagues and opponents. But there they are. They have to come to terms with themselves as other people see them. At the end of it, undoubtedly they feel much more secure.

However, the question is: what happens later? I asked one particular man in the group therapy session, who was always being questioned by the others, what change he saw coming about in himself. He said that up until then—he was doing 30 years in prison—he had always made a point of getting his bearings first and if he thought he was threatened by someone he would knock him out. I asked him whether he felt cured of that and he said that he had lost that sort of disposition. But who knows what he will be like when he leaves Grendon? I leave that on the record for the Minister and his advisers to think about.

Have we done enough to help the old boys of Grendon in later years? We can point to statistics and say that on the whole they have come through quite well. But it is a question of helping them and thinking of the individuals who ought to be given much more attention. It would be extraordinarily interesting to have a conference of old Grendon boys some years later to discuss what effect it had had on them in the long run. I shall leave that thought in view of the time.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, has made the essential points. The situation is worse than it was when we last debated the subject and they have brought in these 60 Rule 43 people. So it is no good the Minister saying that there has been some improvement, though I am sure he would not wish to do that. But the situation is worse, although the people at Grendon are standing up to it very well. When the Minister goes, they no doubt put on a good show and he is quite right to conclude that they are in a sense doing remarkably well. But they would be doing so much better if his Government gave them a fair chance.

The governor was reported in the Guardian today as saying:
"We are dealing with the most difficult people in the positive way"—
that, I am sure, is true—
"so why are we being starved of resources?"
The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, has gone into the details, but I must put this question to the Minister: how far is it true that, compared with the general run of prisons, Grendon is being starved of resources? I submit that it is being starved, and while that is so the record of the Government is most discreditable.

11.17 p.m.

My Lords, I first express my appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, for having sought this opportunity, but, even more for the fullness with which he has painted the picture. He has done so to such an extent that a great deal of what might otherwise have been said by someone like myself, who represents the interests of the Prison Officers' Association in this House—and I declare that interest—has already been said.

What I want to do in, I hope, a very short speech is simply to underline some of the points that have been drawn to my attention by prison officers at Grendon. This information came to me as recently as today. In matters of this kind, there are two ways in which to look at a situation. I happened during the summer to take the opportunity of visiting Grendon because I had heard so much about it. I am bound to say that it was very worth while, having visited so many other prisons, to see a prison that is orientated differently, as is the case at Grendon.

I cannot say anything about the history or the genesis of the matters that have arisen at Grendon over the past 25 years to cap what the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, has put to me. I know that when I drew the attention of the Minister to a number of points that were put to me in distress by the members of the staff there, the Minister responded by pointing out some of the difficulties and said that he was going to visit the prison. I know that he did so on 4th December. Tribute has been paid to the Minister for the assiduous way in which he wanted to see the empire over which he ruled.

I am bound to tell the Minister that when I asked what the reaction of the POA members was to his visit they said that they were pleased that he wanted to see them and seriously discuss the problems. They told me that he conveyed to them that he appreciated that they were doing a good job in difficult circumstances and that if there were such a thing as a special case then they were a special case. Unfortunately, however, he was unable to give them any hope or solace as to the extent to which or the timescale in which their problem would be relieved.

I can do no better than read one of the letters I received from the POA at Grendon. It states:

"with an overall staff of below the 110 when you visited and a recommendation for 167 this leaves no opportunity of going on to Fresh Start in the forseeable future. This position is taking a heavy toll on staff morale which has an obvious effect upon the therapeutic regime at Grendon".
That was the position last November. When I checked the position today, I was told that substantially, give or take the odd figure, that is the enormity of the difference. The assessment teams went down in July. I understand, but perhaps not as well as the Minister, how these things work; that this is a genuine attempt by the governor, the staff, the unions and the prison service to assess the number of staff and grades required to operate Fresh Start. They came up with a figure which I am told was in the region of 167. That figure has of course to be approved.

When that figure was not approved, a further visit was made to the prison in October to try to obtain a different and a realistic figure. What depresses the staff so much is that since that visit—the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, referred to this—they have been literally in the dark as to precisely what will happen and, more important, when it will happen.

The Minister should know that with new staff coming into the prison from other prisons where they have been working under Fresh Start conditions, at Grendon there are prison officers working 56 hours per week and others who work fewer than 56 hours per week and who receive substantially the same amount of money. That cannot be good on any terms. I am not saying that that is how the Minister wants it, but that is the reality.

I merely want to tell the Minister that the morale of the staff at Grendon, as reported to me, is at an all-time low. It was especially low over the Christmas period, which is a time when one wants to believe in good will. The staff bitterly resent the manner in which the emergency alert has been used to meet a situation for which it was never intended. I want to say to the Minister tonight that there are men and women whom he can satisfy even though there may be other costs in other ways. These men and women at Grendon are desperate; their morale is very low. I believe that if the Minister will take on the fact that unless he acts there could very well be a crisis of enormous proportions, then he has a very heavy responsibility. I hope that he will accept the spirit in which I have made those comments as a genuine attempt to help him solve a very grave situation.

11.26 p.m.

My Lords, it is pleasant, even at a late hour and when one's words are not going into very many ears, to pay two compliments. The first compliment I should like to pay with every sincerity is to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. I want to thank him for his continuing courtesy to me, as his opposite number on these Benches. I also want to pay tribute to a Minister whose industry was quite indefatigable, who learnt a lot at firsthand about the prisoners and the prisons under his administration and who tried, within the limitations imposed upon him by the Government, to do his best.

Having said that, like all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate, we wish the Minister well in his future position. Maybe it is not undesirable from his point of view that he has been moved from prisons to an environment which I hope will be a healthier one.

The second compliment I want to pay is to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, for his persistence in bringing up matters which are not always very popular and do not gain votes at election time. He has been a great fighter in the cause of better conditions in prisons over many, many years and has fought hard in a very worthwhile organisation for the redemption of those prisoners who leave prisons in our country.

Having said that, one really wonders whether anything changes, even if one does put down Unstarred Questions. I looked at a paper some time today, from April/May 1984. It is a paper which your Lordships may not know about called Openmind, which deals with matters which are of grave concern to all of us, to those who are mentally ill or mentally handicapped. In the course of reading the April/May edition of 1984, I saw this:
"'Prison overcrowding hits special therapy'. 'Staffiing at Grendon jail worries MPs'. These headlines from 'the Guardian' and 'The Daily Telegraph' a couple of months ago, referred to a report published by the National Association of Probation Officers, which claimed that Grendon's treatment programme was almost at a standstill. Chris Shaw, MIND's Policy and Information Officer, and Stephen Shaw, Director of the Prison Reform Trust visited the psychiatric prison to find out."
I shall not quote what they found out, especially at this hour; but one would have thought, when listening to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, that an investigation made then and an investigation made now do not produce very different results.

I then moved to a question which was asked in another place only a couple of months ago, on 21st October 1987. Ms Harman, Member of Parliament, asked the Secretary of State in another place about the present conditions in Grendon. This was the reply of the Minister, John Patten:
"Since July this year one wing at Grendon prison has been dedicated—"
that is a strange word—
"to the accommodation of rule 43 prisoners transferred from other establishments in the south-east region. This was one of a number of measures which we have taken recently to make the best use of available accommodation in the light of the current high levels of overcrowding in other prisons."—[0fficial Report, Commons, 21.10.87; col. 777.]
Then I go right to the end of a question which asked the Minister about the future and whether the introduction of rule 43 prisoners was a consistent policy. The Minister replied:
"Since the 1st of July this year 128 prisoners have been allocated to Grendon prison. Of these 70 rule 43 prisoners—
that is 70 out of 128—
"will not benefit directly from the therapeutic regime of the prison. The remaining 58 will. Rule 43 prisoners currently comprising 22 per cent. of the Grendon population are held separately from other prisoners and do not detract from the psychiatric regime which remains the establishment's primary purpose. It is not the intention to rid the accommodation of rule 43 prisoners at Grendon while other prisons suitable for them are as crowded as they are now."
Is that the future that the Minister in reply to this debate will repeat in your Lordships' House tonight? So much has been said that should not be repeated because it has been said so well but may I remind the Minister before I sit down that the Home Office did in fact set up an advisory committee on the therapeutic regime at Grendon and it did so in March 1984. I believe it reported in July 1985. Does the Minister remember the recommendations of that committee? Would he say how many of the six recommendations that I shall give very briefly to your Lordships before I sit down have been carried out and what is the point of an advisory committee and setting it up with all that machinery if its advice is not going to be accepted?

The advice included by way of the main recommendations was, first, a review of the regime on the young offenders' wings—by far the majority of the occupants of Grendon who are supposed to be there for psychiatric reasons are under the age of 25—secondly, replacement of the assessment unit with an induction unit on one of the wings; thirdly, conversion of the hospital into a rescue unit for prisoners who experience acute breakdowns while in prison; fourthly, early assessment of all life sentence prisoners for suitability for treatment at Grendon; and, fifthly, numbers of professional and prison officer staff to be kept to near the authorised staffing levels. We have heard a bit about staffing levels in the speeches that have been made tonight. Lastly it was advised that involvement of prison officers in therapy as part of a multi-disciplinary team should be continued.

I ask the question advisedly: how many of those recommendations have been carried out, and what is the future of Grendon? What hope is there for this great ideal which did so much good that I remember a statistic that I was looking at where something like 70 per cent. of those who were in Grendon for a short time period unfortunately returned to prison within about two years. Those who managed to last out and spent something like a minimum of 18 months at Grendon were reduced to 30 per cent. from the 70 per cent. There could not be a greater tribute in my view to an institution of this kind. The Minister is asked, please, what of its future?

11.35 p.m.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, has afforded us a valuable opportunity to debate the work of Grendon Prison. As the noble Lord has reminded the House, he has raised the question of Grendon twice in recent years in February 1983 and again in April 1986. Indeed, he said that tonight at this late hour it was a high price to pay for this debate. However, I consider it to be the right price. I should have felt very left out if I had been the only Home Office Minister in recent years who had not been allowed to debate the matter with the noble Lord.

The subject is of course one on which the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, speaks with special authority and expertise, since he served for many years as chairman of the board of visitors at Grendon. I should like to pay tribute to his long-standing involvement and interest in that establishment.

Perhaps I may open my remarks by stressing that Grendon plays now and will continue to play an important role in our prison system. That point was stressed in our earlier debates by my noble friends Lord Glenarthur and Lord Elton. I am anxious to make the point again and to express appreciation for the work which goes on in the prison and stress that our commitment has not changed. No one who has visited Grendon, as I did in December, can fail to be impressed by the professionalism and dedication of the staff working there. They have good reason to be proud of what they are able to achieve despite the staffing difficulties to which noble Lords have referred and which I acknowledge.

I shall be touching later on some of the significant developments which have taken place since our last debate. However, before doing so, I should like to look at Grendon in a wider context. It is part of the prison system for which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has responsibility as a whole, and that must be the particular perspective which I bring to this debate.

Grendon Prison has just celebrated its 25th anniversary. As your Lordships are aware, it is a unique feature of the prison service, providing a therapeutic regime to which prisoners are referred after medical assessment. It is a purpose-built closed Category B establishment and has a combined certified normal accommodation for adults and a small number of youth custody trainees of 260. It currently holds 259 prisoners and there is no overcrowding. About 60 of those prisoners are segregated under Rule 43 and are not participating in the full Grendon regime. Each of the main wings, except the one holding the Rule 43 prisoners, is a self-contained therapeutic community. All activities relate to therapy which is based on daily group meetings of inmates and staff. Only inmates who wish to go to Grendon are considered for admission since the group therapy process requires that those who participate do so willingly.

The aim is to enable prisoners to mature and to modify their behaviour by placing emphasis on their responsibility for their own actions. As the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, and other noble Lords have said, in one important respect the regime—no less now than before—is very successful in achieving that aim. The evaluative study carried out by Professor John Gunn and colleagues at the Institute of Psychiatry in the 1970s—until recently the only major study on Grendon—pointed to measurable beneficial effects on the behaviour of prisoners during their stay at Grendon compared with their previous custodial history.

Grendon's continued success in achieving behavioural change during sentence was acknowledged by the advisory committee on the therapeutic regime at Grendon in 1985. Having said that, it is perhaps worth putting on record that, as further work by Professor Gunn and his associates has shown, Grendon has proved no more successful than other types of prison regime in affecting significantly the rate at which prisoners re-offend on release.

Although reiterating the comments made by my noble friends Lord Glenarthur and Lord Elton in earlier debates, I also wish to stress again another point made in our earlier debates on Grendon, and one which may not be so welcome to your Lordships. That is that it is not possible to protect Grendon entirely from the pressures which bear so heavily on the rest of the prison system. When we debated Grendon in 1983 the prison population stood at about 44,000; when we debated it in 1986 it was about 46,000. It is now nearly 48,000 and in the middle of July last year reached a record figure of over 51,000. The South-East region, into which Grendon falls, currently holds almost 15,000 prisoners. Those figures help to set our debate this evening in context.

Your Lordships will be aware that we have taken a number of steps in response to the continuing dramatic rise in the prison population. For those prisoners sentenced to up to 12 months' imprisonment, there has been an increase in remission to one half of sentence. Of course we continue to give priority to the prison building programme. Our building and refurbishment programme is to provide a total of 21,600 new places by the mid-1990s, of which 4,200 have already been provided since June 1983. Although a great deal has been done, much of the benefit and relief which this strategy will provide lies in the future. For the present, the pressures of population remain heavy.

Having set the scene and, I hope, put this debate into a wider context, I should like to return to Grendon and discuss recent developments there before going on to deal with the difficult question of manning levels. As I said earlier, I visited Grendon some five weeks ago and saw for myself the problems facing the establishment and the valuable work being done by the staff there. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Graham, I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to visit such an establishment. Having visited over 50 prisons in this country, I thought that not having visited Grendon was something I should look back on and miss.

I should like to refer first to the important developments which have flowed from the first report of the Advisory Committee on the Therapeutic Regime at Grendon—or ACTRAG. It is perhaps surprising that only the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, referred to this very important committee.

The committee was set up in March 1984 to review and monitor the therapeutic regime at Grendon with the aim of broadening the role that it plays in the humane containment and treatment of inmates who require psychiatric facilities in the prison system. Its first report was published in July 1985. The committee recommended that Grendon should continue to concentrate on group therapy within a therapeutic community framework and made clear that it regarded the participation of all staff in therapy as a particular strength. We immediately accepted that central recommendation and have made significant progress on many of the further recommendations of ACTRAG. For example, clear selection criteria for Grendon have been produced and circulated to the prison service. Grendon offers an important facility for the assessment and treatment of male life sentence prisoners, especially in those cases where the nature and circumstances of the offence are such that we will wish to have a thorough psychiatric assessment and, in suitable cases, an indication of the man's response to treatment before a final decision is taken about progression to open prison and release on licence.

We now aim to identify at an early stage in their sentences all those life sentence prisoners who might benefit from treatment at Grendon. A two-year study by the Oxford Centre for Criminological Research began towards the end of 1986 and is progressing well. An important three-year study of the psychiatric needs of the prison population as a whole is about to start under Professor John Gunn of the Institute of Psychiatry. The assessment unit in the hospital has been replaced by an induction unit in a wing. The ground floor of the hospital has been converted into an acute psychiatric unit for inmates who have become mentally disturbed. This is a positive development of great potential benefit to the prison system and is already working well.

I believe that I have covered most of the points mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, except for the question of staffing. As he so rightly said, the ACTRAG report referred to staffing at assumed staffing levels. As the noble Lord fully understands, we have moved on from then on Fresh Start because we do not have assumed staffing levels any more under the new system. I shall come on to that subject in a minute. Our record on accepting and implementing the recommendations by ACTRAG demonstrates more convincingly than can any words of mine our continuing practical commitment to the work done at Grendon.

Part of the wording of the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, about maintaining the therapeutic regime at its previous standards was echoed in questions from a minority of staff during my visit. However, I agree with the majority that the regime will and indeed must change. There is no dispute that it has changed for the better following the ACTRAG report, but I agree with all your Lordships that any change must be accompanied by maintaining the present and previous high standards, the guidelines of which were laid down in the report.

I now turn to two areas of recent concern about Grendon which have a direct bearing on our debate. First, there is the decision implemented in July last year to dedicate one of the two youth custody wings to the accommodation of prisoners segregated under Rule 43 and transferred from other establishments in the South-East region. I have already referred to the acute overcrowding precipitated by the dramatic growth in the prison population last year. The movement of Rule 43 prisoners to Grendon was one of a number of measures taken to make the best use of available accommodation.

It would be wrong for me not to remind the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, and the House that the change of use did not affect the number of prisoners already at Grendon taking part in the therapeutic regime, but it made use of accommodation which would otherwise have been empty. I recognise that the introduction of this new group into Grendon is not what one would ideally have wished; but given that Grendon cannot be totally isolated from problems affecting the system as a whole, it was the least unacceptable of the options available. I cannot commit the department to a date for the removal of the Rule 43 prisoners but I can assure your Lordships that the arrangements will be kept under review.

The other area of concern, and the issue on which the question of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, focuses, is whether the level of manning at the establishment, now and in the future, is adequate to the task of maintaining the therapeutic regime. There are two aspects to this: first, whether current staffing levels are adequate; and, secondly, whether proper arrangements are being made for Grendon to move on to Fresh Start. The Grendon regime is staff intensive and there is a particular problem at the moment in that a number of discipline staff who could be deployed elsewhere in the prison are required to supervise contractors working there. This is essential work. But we are giving urgent consideration to recruiting prison auxiliaries to cover posts like these which have no contact with prisoners thus releasing the discipline staff back into the establishment. We hope that progress will be made on that soon.

Grendon should also benefit from the accelerated recruitment of prison officers of whom a proportion will have general or psychiatric nursing qualifications. The target for recruiting new prison officers in 1987–88 is 1,850 which allows for normal wastage, the opening of new establishments, and the introduction of Fresh Start. The new shift systems under Fresh Start, now introduced into most establishments, allow for much more sensible use of prison officer time and we are working to ensure that Grendon is able as soon as possible to share in these benefits. I recognise that in any major change such as Fresh Start there are a number of uncertainties. That is why we undertook an evaluation study in November and December. We shall be reporting on the outcome and the action we shall be taking at the end of this month.

Grendon is not exposed to the same pressures as those affecting local and remand prisons. It is not overcrowded, neither does it have to undertake time-consuming and staff-intensive court escorts. The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, asked whether Grendon is going to be on Fresh Start as originally planned by the end of February and whether adequate numbers of staff will be provided for the move to Fresh Start. Despite the heavy pressures on the prison service, and the South East region in particular, and the overriding need, supported I am sure by noble Lords opposite, to move prisoners out of police cells, we are working very hard to achieve this target. Clearly from what the noble Lord, Lord Graham, has said the sooner we have the establishment of Fresh Start the better for all concerned.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, referred to an article in the Guardian today. I was not surprised by the article. Sadly, in my opinion, it maintains the paper's unique ability to mislead and give incorrect information on the prison service.

My Lords, perhaps I may intervene. I was simply quoting the governor. I do not think that the noble Earl would wish to apply that language to him.

My Lords, no; but I saw the quote from the governor. I was referring to the article which, in my opinion, did mislead and was certainly inaccurate in places. It referred, for instance, to a commitment that had been given to commence Fresh Start with 118 staff. That is totally wrong; and there are many points in that and in other articles in that paper that give me concern that a paper of that standing should not be more accurate.

My Lords, perhaps the noble Earl will help the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who on Wednesday is putting before the House a very useful Motion on the press and how they should behave. If the noble Earl opposite will attend in his new capacity and participate in that debate, I am sure the noble Earl will be most grateful.

My Lords, I wish that I could. But, alas, as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, will know, I cannot. However, my noble friend Lord Arran (who has listened to this debate) will be attending that debate and I am sure looks forward to discussing that matter with the noble Earl, Lord Longford.

My Lords, I apologise but I have one supplementary point. The newspaper report refers to the staff having been told by the Home Office to go on to Fresh Start immediately with only 118 prison officers. Do I understand from what the Minister said that that is wrong? The Minister has also told us that Fresh Start will only begin by agreement. He made the third point, that he and his colleagues are working very hard to produce a formula which will allow Fresh Start to commence. I should be grateful if the Minister will confirm that I have understood the position correctly.

My Lords, as far as I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Graham, has said, he is correct. To my knowledge there is no instruction that they should go on to Fresh Start immediately with only 118 prison officers. I have mentioned that we are restricted, with between six and eight prison officers being tied up on escorting contractors for external works when they could be used in the prison. This is a matter that is still being discussed because the numbers of prison officers that are needed to bring the establishment on to Fresh Start has not been finalised. So what the papers say is not accurate. That is still a matter to be finalised and agreed.

Before I conclude, I should like to thank all your Lordships for the kind remarks that you have made this evening. In particular I should like to take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. I had a very happy time in the Home Office debating with him. I am extremely grateful for his tolerance and patience in helping me through some difficult situations, and particularly some of the legal difficulties we had on the Criminal Justice Bill. I shall be eternally grateful to the noble Lord. I am also grateful for the opportunity of being able to tell my grandchildren, which I hope I can, that 1 was present with my noble friend Lord Whitelaw and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, when that debate took place.

As I hope I have made clear, I accept that Grendon has special needs. Although I do not consider that it would be right to isolate Grendon from all the pressures on the prison system, we are, as I said earlier, committed to the maintenance of the therapeutic régime at Grendon. Within the constraints affecting the prison service I am happy to repeat that every effort will be made to enable Grendon to continue to make its unique contribution which, as has been shown by your Lordships' speeches tonight, is rightly highly valued.

House adjourned at eight minutes before midnight.