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Prisons: Remand

Volume 806: debated on Wednesday 21 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the impact on (1) prisons, (2) prisoners, and (3) those on remand, of increasing the maximum period of remand in custody by eight weeks.

Pre-trial detention is never considered lightly, my Lords. Numerous safeguards exist to ensure that custody is used appropriately. These safeguards will be maintained and those on remand will still be able to apply for bail even with this extension in place. HMPPS closely monitors prison population forecasts and is committed to always having enough prison places to accommodate those remanded in custody by our courts.

My Lords, the Government tell me that they do not collect data on the number of people held in custody on remand. They now introduce regulations to extend remand to nearly eight months without knowing the numbers. Can the Minister explain how that squares with not knowing how many there are? A key group captured by the new extension is children. Given that about half of them will not get an immediate prison sentence, that 37% of all imprisoned children are on remand, that hardly any education is available to them and that they are in danger of falling into adult criminality, should not the Government make alternative arrangements for this vulnerable group?

My Lords, the latest publicly available data on remand shows that on 30 June this year the remand population was 11,388. All children charged alone should be tried summarily unless the offence is sufficiently grave. Only the most serious youth cases are sent to a Crown Court and therefore involve remand. The department is undertaking a review of the use of custodial remand for children and will look into the drivers for custodial remand and the issues surrounding disproportionality.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many hundreds of remand prisoners in London prisons are now held for much longer periods than before Covid while waiting for a trial date? Her Majesty’s Prison Pentonville alone has over 400 prisoners waiting for unprecedented periods—of over a year—for their cases to be heard. Can she assure your Lordships’ House that action is being taken to relieve this? If so, what action can we expect?

My Lords, Covid-19 has presented an unprecedented challenge to the criminal justice system. The relevant SI is there exactly to aid the criminal courts during their continued recovery from the pandemic and to help to manage demand while the Crown Court continues to recover.

My Lords, I follow on from the right reverend Prelate’s question. Will the Minister accept that, while aggravated by the Covid crisis, the failure to reduce the trial backlog long predates it? Right now, there are prisoners on remand in custody on serious charges of violence and drug dealing whose trials, which take priority over those on remand on bail, will not happen until late 2021, whereas the trials of those on bail, including on charges of rape, will not take place until late 2022. Rather than go on about the need for more severe sentences, why do we not concentrate on practical measures that get defendants before the courts now so that they can be tried and sentenced on the current law, thus ending the current injustice to both victims and accused?

That is exactly what we are trying to do, and is part of our plan. Court recovery is ongoing. We have opened 200 rooms for jury trials since they were resumed in May, and by the end of October 250 rooms will be open. We have also opened 12 Nightingale courts, with a further four due to open any time now. So far as confidence in the system is concerned—having the right sentences and appeals and court procedures—the sentencing White Paper is looking into those issues.

Many prisoners affected by the increased remand period will be the pawns or modern slaves of drug barons, involved in low-level drug dealing. Will the Minister propose to her colleagues that they adopt the excellent policy of Durham Constabulary and a growing number of other police services which divert such vulnerable individuals to treatment, thus reducing pressure on the courts, saving taxpayers’ money and rescuing lives?

I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness. A lot of what she says is included in the sentencing White Paper. We also have to remember that CTLs are managed very well in magistrates’ courts, which do not have the additional problem of accommodating juries under the current social distancing rules.

My Lords, inevitably, a period of remand is stressful. For some, it is highly stressful and can lead to self-harm. Part of the stress is caused by uncertainty. Many remand periods are already far too long, as other noble Lords have said, and extending remand further by eight weeks will make the uncertainty and mental stress even worse. What planning has been done to minimise self-harm by prisoners held for long periods on remand?

The noble Baroness brings up an important point. I do not have all the details but I am very happy to write to her about what we are doing to alleviate that.

My Lords, the percentage of black youngsters in prison far exceeds their representation in the community. In fact, in some of our women’s prisons it may be as high as 25%. Have the Government undertaken an impact assessment or research to understand how we have created this anomaly?

The impact that the SI will have on the BAME groups—as the noble Lord said, they are disproportionately represented in the remand population—has been carefully considered. To this effect, an equalities impact statement has been undertaken to explore any potential disproportionate effects. This will ensure that the extension is a measured and necessary means of protecting the public and that justice continues to be served.

My Lords, the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance represents 900 arts organisations that do magnificent work in our prisons and with offenders and ex-offenders. Does my noble friend agree that the pandemic is an opportunity for the Government to engage further with this arts alliance, considering that so many arts organisations are struggling to stay open, and that it could be engaged further to make an impact on some of the issues that noble Lords have already mentioned, such as education and mental health?

My noble friend is absolutely right. I thank him for his work with the National Youth Theatre and Music Masters, which does a lot of work with disadvantaged young people. The alliance has 900 organisations as members, which undertake successful arts projects with both sentenced offenders and those on remand. Covid has curtailed some of its work but we hope that it will get back to working hard in our prisons very soon.

My Lords, all the questions that we have heard put to the Minister reflect the very serious situation that we are seeing in our courts. Both sentenced prisoners and those on remand are spending 23 hours a day in their cells, and noble Lords have drawn attention to an increase in self-harm in both the male and female estates. Does the Minister agree that there should be greater access to telephones and video contact arrangements for prisoners and their families? Of course such arrangements should be appropriately monitored so that no more abuse is perpetuated, but greater contact would help prisoners in their rehabilitation.

I agree. We have done a lot in the Prison Service since the beginning of this pandemic to exactly that end. There is already a greater use of iPads and telephones.

My Lords, extended time spent on remand is an inevitable consequence of the extended time in bringing cases to trial due to Covid, which I supported. However, it is a miserable existence, waiting in cells with nothing to do. It is damaging to prisoners’ mental health, especially that of young offenders and, even more especially, young women, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, pointed out. Again, I ask the Minister to say what extra steps are being taken to address their quality of life during these extended periods and to monitor and care for their mental health.

My Lords, I think I have said before that these are very difficult times. We have to look after the health and well-being not only of the staff in our prisons but of the prisoners, whether sentenced or on remand, and we are doing everything we can to keep them safe. However, I absolutely agree that this extended time impacts on some of the extra work that we can do with them because of the need to keep them safe.