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Prisons: Cell Sharing

Volume 684: debated on Wednesday 5 July 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether, in light of the recent report byMr Justice Keith, they will ensure that HM Prison Service sets an early date for an end to forced cell sharing.

My Lords, we announced on publication that we accepted in principle Mr Justice Keith's recommendation that the elimination of enforced cell sharing should remain the objective of the Prison Service and that the achievement of that goal should be regarded as a high priority. But we also made clear that the resource implications would be extremely serious. I therefore cannot announce a date by which it will be implemented.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Can she indicate when the changes she mentioned will be made, in the longer and the shorter term, pursuant to the report issued by Mr Justice Keith? What is happening about it?

My Lords, the Government have made a preliminary response toall Mr Justice Keith's recommendations; it was published on 29 June. It can be found on the Home Office website, but I am happy to put a copy in the Library. We are considering the report and its recommendations in detail and will provide a full response to all the recommendations by 29 August.

My Lords, now that the prison population is rising by more than 300 a week, what plans do the Government have to accommodate inmates once the maximum is reached? Will the Minister confirm that there are no plans to use police cells for that purpose?

My Lords, we have plans in place because of the rise in the prison population. We are exploring all avenues to ensure that spaces are available. As the noble Lord will know, we have done well to date in increasing the number of places. However, prison capacity has increased by about 4,000 in the past two years. We have not finished our investigation and will pursue all avenues to see how we can do better.

My Lords, one of thesentences that surprised me in the summary of recommendations from Mr Justice Keith was this:

“The inability of the Prison Service at the time to identify those prisons which were failing badly was highlighted by the fact that the Director General did not know just how bad Feltham had become”.

I find that extraordinary, as I gave him three reports: in 1996, 1998 and 1999, so he ought to have known. What worried me was that a lot of the recommendations had not been actioned.

The Question of the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davies, refers to recommendation 1, on enforced cell sharing. Recommendation 9 states:

“The Prison Service should publish guidelines to assist officers in allocating cells to those prisoners who have to sharea cell”.

In view of how recommendations are acted on, can the Minister tell us when those guidelines will be published and who is responsible and accountable for making certain that they are obeyed?

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, will know, Feltham has changed radically since six years ago. One of the things that gives us a modicum of satisfaction is that the Feltham of today is very different from the Feltham of yesterday. As for the guidelines, those issues have been addressed, and I will certainly write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the recommendations apply only to England? As she said, however, they have serious resource implications if implemented. In view of that, would it not be absolute madness to restrict Members of the House of Commons from other parts of the United Kingdom from having a say on matters with resource implications?

My Lords, any improper restraint of those who have the privilege of sitting in either House would be quite intolerable.

My Lords, is this not yet another example of how important it is that the Government prosecute even harder their policy of alternatives to custody? We desperately need that at every level. What immediate plans are there to step it up?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that the most appropriate sentence is one that deals with risk and the ability to cut recidivism. She is right that we are energetically pursuing effective alternatives to prison. That can be seen in our five-year plan, in the alliances and in the work that we are engaging in across the board, including other government departments.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that it is also down to the sensitivity of prison officers? For instance, would she agree that an asthmatic should not be put in a cell with a smoker?

My Lords, I certainly agree that there is an issue of sensitivity. We have done a great deal to improve the understanding of the risks that prisoners pose but also of their needs, in order better to address them. That can be seen in how we encourage and enable health and education providers to become involved in prisons in a much more direct way.

My Lords, has any assessment been made of the number of people incarcerated in prison who would be better accommodated in mental hospitals if there were places for them?

My Lords, we are looking at mental health issues. I am working hard with my right honourable friends in the other place, in the health department, better to assess mental health provision and to improve delivery of mental health services. The noble Countess is absolutely right: some prisoners might be far better placed in the mental health estate.